Vols pass key test

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If you are a Tennessee basketball fan, about now, you are probably feeling a bit better about your team.

In case you were orbiting Mars Wednesday night, the 10th-ranked Volunteers took down No. 1-ranked Alabama in front of a sold-out house at Thompson-Boling Arnea, 68-59. Usually, when Tennessee plays basketball and a No. 1-ranked team is involved, Tennessee is that top-ranked club and usually gets taken down by a team not nearly as good.

This was refreshing for the Big Orange faithful. It was, perhaps, refreshing for the team that was badly in need of proving something to the college basketball world.

This was a significant victory, or it seems like it should be, for a variety of reasons. For starters, this team shows it has the chops to beat a good team. And make no mistake, Bama has a good team. When you go 7-0, 6-10 under the basket, it’s tough to get inside. Make no mistake, Alabama is worthy of the praise, ranking, and accolades it has received this year. 

So what happens next, when the Vols hit the road to Kentucky? That’s the 64-dollar question. Will the Vols be hungover from the Bama victory?  That seems to be the pattern. The Vols beat Texas, lose to Florida. Beat Auburn, lose to Vandy, then Missouri. Keep in mind that while Kentucky is struggling this season, it still has Fina Four talent…and already owns a victory over the Vols at T-B Arena.

Many have complained that this team has been Jekyll and Hyde all year, but when you look at the schedule, it’s been pretty tough from the get-go. To stay up night after night is hard to do. One night, the shooting suffers, and the next night, the defense falls into a crack. The next night…or two…a team gets lucky with a last-second shot.

A lot of people want pin much of the blame for these mid-season and post-season swoons on head coach Rick Barnes. Yes, Barnes is captain of the ship and, every so often, worthy of the scrutiny heaped upon him. 

His offense is unimaginative, he needs to let his players go, his system is too structured, etc., etc. All of that is valid. Some have even suggested, as I saw in a blog last week, that Barnes may have peaked at UT. 

His teams enter the season pretty highly ranked, then rise up the flagpole to a Top Five team. Suddenly, there’s that inexplicable loss to Hofstra (or enter the also-ran of your choice here). Then the team reels off eight straight wins before losing to an archrival on national television, followed by a couple of other setbacks to SEC weak sisters sprinkled in.

But the Vols make it back up the ranks and get into the NCAA tournament…where they collapse in the Round of 32.

Yep, that’s Tennessee basketball in the Barnes era. But, in his defense, he does win. He does get his team in a position to make a run. He’s been to the Final Four before, at Texas, but that was a long time ago (and with Kevin Durant on the roster). 

As a result of this victory over Bama, and depending on what happened Saturday in Lexington (a President’s Day early deadline precludes me from mentioning the result of that game), the Vols should be back in the Top Five or so. 

Remember Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, and Kentucky? All four of them are usually national-title contenders. This year, none of them are ranked, if you can believe it.

Which team would you rather be a fan of this year?

Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox, which airs 4-6 p.m. CT, Monday-Thursday on WRJB, 95.9 FM, Camden, Tenn.

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