Vols season taken with grain of salt
In the past five years, the Tennessee basketball program has defied expectations.
Since head coach Bruce Pearl arrived on Rocky Top, the notion of UT as a basketball school has no longer been followed with laughter. Instead, that statement stands as a mark of pride for the job Pearl has done in Knoxville.
This season has been no different.
When four UT players were arrested and thrust into the headlines for regrettable actions, the Vols hit rock bottom. When Tyler Smith was dismissed for the team, UT's season was seemingly left for dead.
Somehow, that isn't how things turned out.
Tennessee beat the unbeaten when top-ranked Kansas ventured to Knoxville only days after the players' arrests. Over a month later, the Vols took out No. 2 Kentucky in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Neither outcome was likely. Neither outcome was expected. Yet somehow, these resilient Vols made something out of nothing on more than one occasion this season.
That's why Sunday's Elite Eight loss to Michigan State must be judged not only by one game, but by the overall body of work the Vols accumulated over the course of this season. It was the first Elite Eight in the program's history, and it came at the tail-end of a season where many different starting lineups and several different rotations were used to bang and scrape one team's way deep into the NCAA Tournament. Deeper than any Tennessee team had ever ventured.
Considering what the Vols were left with on January 2, this season's results are staggering.
One free throw here, one missed Spartan basket there, and this never-say-die group of student athletes could be headed to Indianapolis for the Final Four.
The crazy thing is, who's to say this group would have made it this far WITH Tyler Smith and the other three players in their regular rotation? Who's to say Kansas would have been toppled, or Kentucky would have been stunned?
But this group did make it this far, and for a roster of players who had their season written off right before their eyes less than three months ago, they've put together a season to be proud of.