By Jimmy Hyams
Seven SEC men’s basketball teams have been to a Final Four.
Tennessee is not one of them.
The Vols have been to just one Elite Eight. Tennessee didn’t even win an NCAA Tournament game with the marvelous duo of Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King.
Now, with a cast featuring mostly three-star players, players rejected by the Big Ten and the ACC an the SEC, Tennessee has a chance to join Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina as a Final Four team from the SEC.
Would anyone be surprised if the Vols were among the last four standing?
“I would not be surprised at all,’’ Mike DeCourcy, senior college basketball writer for The Sporting News, said during a recent interview on SportsTalk WNML radio.
“I think they are one of six or seven teams, maybe a few more than that, for whom a Final Four at this point is really a goal, something they look at and say, `We should believe we should do that.’
“Now, all those teams can’t fit in so someone will be disappointed. … But I think Tennessee is one of the teams, absolutely, that should feel like it’s a disappointment if they don’t make it. I think they have that capability.’’
The Vols went 26-9 last year, shared the regular-season SEC Championship and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament before being upset by Loyola Chicago. That was a great season for a team picked to finish 13th in the SEC by SEC media, but a tough pill to swallow when a first-ever trip to the Final Four was possible.
DeCourcy thinks these Vols are better equipped to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament than last year’s team.
“When they played elite teams (last year) they beat Kentucky up both times (in regular-season wins),’’ DeCourcy said. “You can’t really beat people up in this current age of the NCAA. But you can make yourself really hard to play against.
“Someone like Admiral Schofield makes 3s and scores 30 points (against then No. 1 Gonzaga), I don’t think you’d see that a year ago. You might have seen Grant Williams have a game in that ballpark, but he was the only one you’d expect to put up a big number like that.’’
DeCourcy also thinks the Vols are “more dynamic’’ at point guard with Jordan Bone, whose had a three-game stretch in which he averaged about 19 points ?per game. Because UT is a better offensive team this season, DeCourcy says, the Vols will be a threat.
“When you get to the NCAA Tournament, and you can’t score or struggle to score, you struggle to advance,’’ DeCourcy said. “That will be less of a problem for this (UT) team when we get to March than it was a year ago.’’
DeCourcy said the win over Gonzaga was “enormous’’ for the UT team and stamped the Vols as an “NCAA Championship contender.’’
“You get a win like that and do well in the SEC,’’ DeCourcy said, “you’ve got a shot at a really high seed in the (NCAA) tournament. … To beat Gonzaga was really a terrific statement for the Vols.’’
DeCourcy said Kentucky has struggled to regain the form it showed in demolishing the opposition during an exhibition tour to the Bahamas. He didn’t rule out the Wildcats “being that team again.’’
John Calipari’s team showed some of that ability with a recent win over top 10 North Carolina.
Regarding Auburn, DeCourcy said he “wouldn’t put them at the front of the list’’ of Final Four candidates, “but they’re certainly in the ballpark.’’ He doesn’t expect to see the best of Auburn until mid to late January, when the full roster is in tact.
DeCourcy likes Duke but he sees a potential problem.
“Duke has the most talented team in the country one to four by far, it’s not even close,’’ DeCourcy said. “My concern about Duke’s team is they’ve never found an idea of what they want their fifth guy to be.’’
DeCourcey said it’s almost like Duke is missing a “lugnut on a tire.’’