Nichols: Basketball Vols still haven’t peaked- but will they ever?

Tennessee lost to Auburn 84-80 on Saturday, dashing the Vols’ hopes of a second-consecutive SEC regular-season title. Can they still make the Final Four push that we’ve all come to expect?

As the toilet paper twirled in the dappled sunlight on Toomer’s Corner late Saturday afternoon, one almost couldn’t help but to take a sip of lemonade and appreciate the surroundings.

Kids tossed footballs on the lawn of Auburn’s Samford Hall.

Close by, a group of sorority girls chattered as one of them walked her chocolate lab along College Street amidst a bustling downtown.

Finally, a group of well-wishers waved deep orange and navy shakers at the end of the sidewalk, screaming in celebration of a newly-married couple.

None of them seemed aware of a pivotal college basketball game that had transpired only hours earlier, just a few blocks down South Donahue Street.

In that game, on a beautiful afternoon in rural Alabama, Tennessee’s sky-high hopes came crashing down.

For now, at least.

But before we get to the latest collapse, we must first go back to the beginning.

To start this season, the Vols ripped off four straight wins, appearing every bit the blue-chip, championship-destined team that came out of nowhere in last year’s SEC race.

Then came the first low point: a loss to then-No. 2 Kansas in Brooklyn on Nov. 23.

But the ship quickly righted itself, as the notably tight-knit group powered through virtually every team in its path for almost three months.

During that period, Tennessee went on a 19-game win streak, good for a new school record. It also reached one of the greatest heights the program has ever seen, as a Dec. 9 win over No. 1 Gonzaga paved the way for a No. 1 ranking that lasted from late January to mid-February.

As Vol fans know all too well, though, all good things must come to an end.

They did on Feb. 16.

After bullying through several inferior opponents, top-ranked Tennessee stepped in front of a freight train when it took on fifth-ranked Kentucky in Lexington.

Final score: 86-69 UK.

Gone was the No. 1 ranking.

Gone was the swagger.

And after a close win over Vanderbilt and an 82-80 loss to now-tainted LSU in Baton Rouge, gone were the Vols from any more Final Four discussions.

Or so we thought.

With its season teetering on the brink of free fall, Tennessee used a calculated, twisting layup from Grant Williams and a fortunate charge call on Admiral Schofield to hold off unranked Ole Miss on Feb. 27 in Oxford.

The matchup against the Rebels showed several flaws within Tennessee, and it stretched the Vols to the very edge of bending without snapping violently in two.

(More on that later.)

Either way, the win over Ole Miss set up a long-awaited rematch with Kentucky in Knoxville, a game that Schofield capped with a post-buzzer slam to send the Wildcats home with a 71-52 loss.

That night, a video of UT athletic director Phillip Fulmer shaking the players’ hands as they entered the locker room made its way around social media.

In the background, one did not need to listen too closely for a distinct phrase from Vols senior walk-on Lucas Campbell:

”You beat us by 17, we’ll beat you by 19!”

And that, it seemed, was that.

The swagger was back.

The championship hopes were restored.

Following an emotional senior night victory over Mississippi State, the Vols appeared poised to roll over unranked Auburn to close out the regular season.

Evidently, former UT coach Bruce Pearl didn’t get the memo.

Neither did Bryce Brown, Chuma Okeke or an electric crowd inside a packed Auburn Arena that proved just as intimidating as it is intimate.

On a day that it likely expected to end by cutting down nets, Tennessee found itself on the outside looking in for the biggest party in Auburn.

Okeke led the Tigers with 22 points, Brown sprinted headfirst into the student section and Pearl twirled a celebratory towel at mid-court amidst a world of chaos as Auburn held off the Vols 84-80.

The loss put Tennessee at 27-4 on the year. It also stripped the Vols of any shot at an outright SEC regular-season title, and LSU finished the job with a win over Vanderbilt on Saturday night to clinch first place.

Now, the Vols head into tournament play drowning in uncertainty.

They’ll draw a No. 3 seed in Nashville for the SEC Tournament, as a Kentucky win over Florida keeps the Wildcats at No. 2 behind the Will Wade-less Bayou Bengals.

That will force Tennessee into some slightly tougher matchups to begin the slate, and the Vols will probably face Kentucky for round three in the tournament semifinal.

Eight days ago, Williams said that the Vols will likely “see them (Kentucky) again.”

But the loss to Auburn begs a question far more different than whether the Vols can grab two out of three over Kentucky, or even whether they can run the table in the conference tournament.

It’s a question that came up after the LSU loss, and it bobbed close to the surface during the waning moments of Tennessee-Ole Miss, at least for yours truly:

Is this really it?

Or, even more so: is this how it ends?

With this team? This chemistry? This hope of a title?

My guess is no.

My guess is that, much like we’ve seen earlier this season, Tennessee will respond once more in the form of a few ferocious wins, with maybe a close finish added in as well, to re-establish its dominance.

But what about when that final domino does fall?

Because it’s going to happen, whether anyone likes it or not.

At some point this season, Schofield, Kyle Alexander, Campbell and Brad Woodson really will walk off the floor for the last time in a Tennessee uniform.

Whether that walking comes in the form of a confetti-littered skip from Schofield following a national championship celebration, or the slow, plodding walk we saw last year when the Vols were bounced by Loyola-Chicago in the Round of 32?

Well, that remains to be seen.

But after the collapse that Tennessee suffered at Auburn, as well as the close calls it’s experienced against teams like Ole Miss and Alabama, Vol fans shouldn’t be gearing up for that championship run just yet.

Because if the excitement and expectations grow any more, and this team falls short like it can under the wrong circumstances, then even the most bloodthirsty Big Orange fans will end this basketball season just like they have the last 19 football seasons: disappointed and confused.

Edited by Kaitlin Flippo and Robert Hughes

Featured image courtesy of Jake Nichols.