Madness has descended on Big Orange Country.
There have been few Volunteer squads with more expectations attached to them in March than the current team. Ranked in the top 10 all year – including a long stint at No. 1 – the Vols are expected to compete for the program’s first national championship.
Doing that would also require Tennessee to make it to its first national championship game. And it’s first Final Four. And only its second Elite Eight. And to just its eighth sweet – you know what, I think you get the point.
This Tennessee team is being hailed as one of the best in program history. That’s leading to predictions of things which have never happened before. Thus far, through all its triumphs this year, the Vols’ lone struggle is doing something the program has never accomplished before.
The Vols had a chance less than two weeks ago to clinch at least a share of the regular season championship. When the Vols lost at Auburn, it cost the team a chance to win back-to-back conference titles for the first time in program history.
Eight days later, Tennessee met Auburn again with 40 years of history looking to be washed away with a win. The Bruce Pearl-led Tigers won by 20. For perspective, Tennessee entered the game having lost just four games – by a combined 29 points. Vol fans in their 30s, or younger, have still never seen an SEC tournament champion clad in Big Orange.
Still, there’s plenty to love about these Vols.
Admiral Schofield is making a serious run at being the most-liked player in UT history to wear No. 5. That seemed impossible when Chris Lofton, the best 3-point shooter in SEC history, left the program in 2008 after leading the Vols to back-to-back sweet 16’s. Admiral is a force of nature and his game-winner over Gonzaga will always be a part of Tennessee lore.
There’s also Grant Williams, the two-time SEC player of the year. Smart enough to attend Harvard and skilled enough to topple NBA lottery picks for accolades, Williams may be on the most decorated players to put on orange and white.
Schofield and Williams – or peanut butter and jelly, as they like to be called – have been comfort food for Tennessee fans. They make fans believe in anything, including the chances of lifting a championship trophy in a few weeks.
To do that though, this squad has to do something it hasn’t done yet. It has to win games that really matter.