A guide through the Vols’ possible path to a Final Four

Tennessee starts their March Madness run on Thursday as they look to be the first-ever Vols’ team to make the Final Four.

KNOXVILLE, TN - March 13, 2022 - Guard Quentin Diboundje #3 of the Tennessee Volunteers arrives in Knoxville after the 2022 SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament championship game between the Texas A&M Aggies and the Tennessee Volunteers at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fl. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

After wrapping up the regular season and conference tournament with a 26-7 record, SEC Tournament championship and a No. 5 ranking in the final AP Poll, Tennessee finds itself as the third-seeded team in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament.

This season has already been one of the best runs from a Tennessee men’s basketball team in recent history as the Vols’ SEC Tournament title was their first since 1979. Now, they can elevate their legacy and become the first Vols team to make the Final Four.

Here is a preview of their path:

First Round

In a tournament as unpredictable as the NCAA’s, the first game is the only matchup that is guaranteed. Tennessee will face off with the No. 14 seed Longwood on Thursday at 2:25 p.m. in the first round of the tournament.

Longwood finished the season with a 26-6 overall record and 15-1 Big South record earning them the Big South regular season title. Despite going to overtime in the first game of their conference tournament, the Lancers survived and won the Big South Tournament with a win over former Vol D.J. Burns Jr.’s Winthrop squad.

The Lancers’ six losses on the season came to Iowa, Western Carolina, Old Dominion, Georgetown, Abilene Christian and NC A&T. The only team they played to also make the big dance was Iowa. In their season-opener vs. the Hawkeyes, they struggled to stop the Iowa attack. This resulted in a 106-73 loss.

Longwood’s true strength is instead their offense. They are ranked as the 115th best offense compared to the 191st defense according to KenPom.com. The Lancers’ offense averaged 76.4 points per game, leading the Big South. This was achieved through a slow-paced style that was widely efficient from behind the arch. They finished the season atop the Big South in 3-point field goal percentage at 37.9%.

Leading the offensive charge for Longwood is sophomore guard Justin Hill. Hill averaged 14.2 points on 33.3% shooting from deep on the season. He is not just a scorer, though. Hill also tallied 4.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game, as well. Virginia Tech and Wake Forest transfer Isaiah Wilkins and East Carolina transfer DeShaun Wade also averaged double figures in scoring for the Lancers.

Although Longwood’s offense has the ability to heat up from three, there is a reason they are slotted as a 14th seed. They played one of the weakest schedules in the country and have not shown up against the few good opponents they have faced. Barring a major implosion, Tennessee should be able to handle the Lancers with ease.

Second Round

If Tennessee takes care of business and downs Longwood, the Vols will find themselves in a matchup with either the No. 6 seed Colorado State or the No. 11 seed Michigan.

Colorado State has a potent offense that averaged 73.7 points per game this season. The Rams are led by David Roddy who averages 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks a contest. Isaiah Stevens also helps carry the load with 14.9 points and 4.8 assists per game. The two contribute to an offense that has seen success from three. The team leads the Mountain West at 35.8% 3-point shooting, and Roddy shoots an astonishing 45.5% from deep.

Defensively, the Rams are not awful but are also not necessarily a force to be reckoned with. This has been an issue for them as teams averaged 80.8 points against them in their regular season losses. However, Colorado State posted an impressive 25-5 overall record this season while placing second in a competitive Mountain West regular season.

In matchups with other tournament teams this season, the Rams went 6-3. The wins came over Creighton, Saint Mary’s, San Diego State, Boise State (twice) and Wyoming. The losses were to San Diego State (twice) and Wyoming. Although Colorado State fell in its conference tournament semifinal, the Rams were a lock to make the tournament with their impressive resume.

On the other hand, Michigan barely snuck into the field of 68. After making an Elite Eight run last season, the Wolverines fell flat this year finishing with a 17-14 overall record and eighth in the Big 10 regular season.

Similar to Longwood and Colorado State, Michigan has proven to be a good offensive team that struggles on the other end of the floor. KenPom.com has the Wolverines as the 19th best offense in the country while just the 91st ranked defense. They play a slow-tempo offense that revolves around Hunter Dickerson. The sophomore center is a presence in the post that is a handful for defenses. He averages 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. His go-to move is a spin off of the block where he’s able to find separation for dunks and lay-ins.

Other options for Michigan are Eli Brooks, DeVante’ Jones and Caleb Houstan, who all averaged double-digit points. The team also shoots a Big 10 third-best 46.8% from the field on the season.

Defensively, the Wolverines simply struggle to stop the other team from scoring. They gave up a Big10 second-worst 44.7% field goal shooting. They also struggle at forcing turnovers collecting just 4.8 steals a game, which lands them third-worst in the conference. However, an aspect they succeed in is making it tough for 3-point shooters.

These defensive woes were a big reason Michigan struggled to come away with wins this season. Against other tournament teams, the Wolverines went an abysmal 7-12.

The Vols defense is one of the best in the country and a strength of it is getting big in the post without fouling. It would take good games from Uros Plavsic, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, John Fulkerson and Jonas Aidoo, but the matchup against Dickerson may be more favorable than trying to stop Colorado State’s shooters and navigating their screens to get Roddy open. In the case the Vols do play the Rams, though, Kennedy Chandler, Zakai Zeigler and Josiah-Jordan James are all also equipped to be defensive stoppers.

Sweet Sixteen

It is never safe to say the No. 2 and 3 seeds will match up in the Sweet Sixteen, but it is still the most likely situation. If this proves to be the case, Tennessee will find itself in a rematch against Villanova.

In the teams’ first matchup, Villanova stormed to a 71-53 victory. The game was held in Uncasville, Conn. at the beginning of the season as a part of the Cheez-It Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. The Wildcats had three players score 14 points and one player score 13 against the Vols. This balanced attack was too much for an inexperienced Tennessee team to overcome.

Although the Vols lost the first time around, that does not mean it will necessarily go the same way this time. In the first game, Tennessee was still finding its identity. One noticeable difference was the lack of playing time for Zeigler and Plavsic. The two played a combined 12 minutes off of the bench. Now, Zeigler is the team’s sixth man and helps close games down the stretch and Plavsic is the starting center.

On the other hand, Villanova built off of this win. The Wildcats finished with a 26-7 record resulting in second place in the Big East regular season. Although the Wildcats do not necessarily score a lot of points, they have one of the most effective offenses in the country. At just 68.1 points per game, they still rank as the eighth-best offense in the country according to KenPom.com. The reason for this is a remarkably slow pace. The offense ranks as the 14th slowest tempo in the country out of all 358 Divison I schools according to KenPom.com.

Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore are the catalysts for the offense. The two combine for 30.9 points and 5.5 assists per game. Villanova also has four other players averaging over nine points a game, but outside of this top six, nobody else on the team averages over two. This lack of scoring depth can cause problems late in a tournament.

The Wildcats also have a respectable defense that holds offenses to inefficient shooting. This was the case in Tennessee’s early-season matchup with Villanova where the Vols shot just 33.3% from the field and 17.9% on 3-pointers.

Villanova is no easy out, but Tennessee should have a better chance of winning than their first meeting. The Vols have a much-improved offense that could make up for previous mistakes. The stifling Tennessee defense could also cause Villanova trouble with a lack of scoring options off the bench.

Elite Eight

If the Vols are able to stay alive into the Elite Eight, they will likely face another familiar foe in the No. 1 seed Arizona. Unlike Tennessee’s defeat to Villanova, though, the Vols took down Arizona at home in their first meeting.

In the first matchup, Tennessee handed Arizona its first loss of the season in a 77-73 nailbiter. Fulkerson helped lead the Vols to victory with 24 points in one of his best performances in orange. On the other end, Bennedict Mathurin impressed with 28 points.

Mathurin is the star player for the Wildcats, averaging 17.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. He is an efficient scorer who can stretch the floor with 3-pointers. Behind him are Azuolas Tubelis, Christian Koloko and Kerr Kriisa all averaging over 10 points a game.

These players contribute to one of the best offenses in the country. KenPom.com ranks them as the fifth-best with the eighth-fastest tempo. This quick pace and ability to run the floor is what makes the offense so special. They love to run in transition and steal easy baskets.

Defensively, the Wildcats average 6.7 steals per game and hold opposing offenses to a Pac-12 best 38.7% shooting from the field. These factors land them as the 20th best defense in the country according to KenPom.com.

With a deadly offense, ability to score in transition, deep bench and effective defense, it makes sense that Arizona has posted a 31-3 record, Pac-12 regular season title, Pac-12 Tournament title, No. 2 ranking in the AP Poll, No. 2 ranking according to KenPom.com and a No. 1 seed in the South Region. Tennessee would have their hands full with this Wildcats team, but it would be foolish to count them out. After all, the Vols have already proven they are capable of downing them.

Results

If the Vols can defeat the odds and survive this gauntlet, they would become undoubtedly the best team in Tennessee men’s basketball history. They would also be just two wins away from taking home the national championship.

This is an unlikely outcome in a tournament of this size and caliber, but this year’s Vols team has as good of tools to make the run as any we have seen in recent history.

 

Featured image courtesy of Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Sports Editor | + posts

Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at rsylvia@vols.utk.edu