UT Vols had 'special year' despite painful end, Rick Barnes says

Mike Wilson
Tennessee guard Jordan Bone (0) drives past Loyola Chicago guard Marques Townes (5) during Saturday's game.

DALLAS — Jordan Bone’s iPhone lit up incessantly in the minutes after Tennessee's basketball season came to a jarring halt Saturday.

But the Tennessee sophomore point guard did not see the texts, direct messages and notifications pouring in. He just hunched over at his locker, sniffled and cried – a crumpled tissue twisted in his hands wiping away the tears, but not the pain of a 63-62 last-second, season-ending defeat at the hands of Loyola Chicago.

At the same time in another room inside American Airlines Center, Vols coach Rick Barnes shared part of his postgame message to his team. Barnes told his players he was glad the loss hurt because he has had teams that made him wonder whether “it hurt deep enough.”

That’s not a concern with this team, then Barnes provided some hard-to-grasp perspective for a young person in a moment of heartbreaking defeat.

“I told them once we step back and decompress from all of it, we've done a lot – a lot more than certainly what other people thought,” Barnes said.

That step back will take some time, surely. Bone was hardly alone in his visible pain Saturday. Sophomore guard Jordan Bowden wrapped a towel over his head, and junior center Kyle Alexander draped a sweatshirt over his upper body in a locker room filled with red eyes and soft voices.

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The hurt was real and fresh, but Barnes hoped a couple of weeks could bring a different sentiment.

“These guys felt they could win, and they're going to look back on it in a couple weeks and realize that it was a special year,” Barnes said.

What the Vols accomplished this season was as magical as the end was tragic – a 26-win, title-claiming season crashing to an end when Clayton Custer’s jumper with 3.6 seconds left took three unlikely bounces to send Loyola Chicago to the Sweet 16 instead of Tennessee.

Tennessee came into the season having won 31 games total in the past two seasons, then won 26 games for the fourth time in program history. UT was picked to finish second-to-last in the SEC but instead won a share of its first regular-season SEC championship in a decade. The Vols earned a No. 3 seed in their first NCAA tournament in four years after not appearing on the radar of preseason projections.

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In other words, what was thought of Tennessee basketball in October isn’t what is thought of Tennessee basketball in March.

“We've worked really hard, and the biggest thing is we've brought some excitement around the basketball program again,” junior forward Admiral Schofield said.

Said sophomore forward Grant Williams: “We did a good job this year when it comes to putting kind of Tennessee back on the map.”

The re-emergence of the program was on Barnes’ mind, as he noted Tennessee will be in a different position moving forward. The Vols won’t be picked to finish 13th in the SEC next season, which brings a new challenge in handling success and expectations. They’ll be expected to play in March again, competing for an SEC title with a roster that has only one scheduled departure in reserve guard James Daniel III.

But that’s a subject to broach another day.

As Barnes chased reflection Saturday, he said he felt like the University of Tennessee needed something good to happen, and he felt his players “created that going forward.”

He also told his players they need to want more still.

“They know what our goals are, and one of them will be to try to be in this tournament every year – something you don't take for granted,” Barnes said.

The Vols got a taste of the tournament this time. They also got a taste of the pain that goes with being one of the 67 teams that loses in it. But Barnes believes that hurt can be a good thing, even a catalyst to get back and “go deeper and further.”

“We’ve got to use this for next year because this feeling that we’re feeling right now, I don’t ever want to feel again,” Williams said.