INDIANAPOLIS — If there is one thing this Tennessee basketball team won’t do this time around, it’s take anything for granted, not even the opening round win. The Vols went on an SEC Tournament title run last week and have since transferred their focus from Tampa to Indianapolis.
They could’ve come out a bit sluggish in their game on Thursday, but they never did. Maybe this team has a different mentality than previous teams or maybe they have turned the corner and matured together. But for Josiah-Jordan James and his teammates, this year’s team has learned from the past.
“I feel like learning from what happened last year. We were one of those teams who just thought things were going to happen. We weren’t really playing desperate. We just talked this week leading up to this game, being the more desperate team and knowing that every team in this Tournament is a championship team, and so you can’t take anything for granted. I felt like we did a good job in preparing for that.”
They were on a quick turnaround too. They didn’t really have the time to focus on celebrating their SEC Championship. They immediately had to turn their attention toward Longwood. The quick shift in focus paid off.
Santiago Vescovi, for one, rattled off 18 points in the win, finishing the game 6-8 from three-point range. After the game, Vescovi discussed the team emphasis of keeping everything out in front of them and not looking back or too far ahead.
“I think it was a little bit of both, keeping the good vibes, knowing that what we are doing works, I think was really important.
“But at the same time, change our mindset and focus on what we have now,” Santiago added. “I think we did a super quick turnaround. We could have been still celebrating what we did in the SEC Tournament, and I think everybody’s mindset was in the right position. Everybody got a quick turnaround and everybody started focusing on what we have now.”
But now the Vols can look ahead to the matchup with Michigan, which will be the first time these two teams have met since the infamous Sweet 16 of 2014 in the same city. The Wolverines prevailed 71-73, but Vols still remember a controversial charging call against Jarnell Stokes in the final seconds to seal the win for Michigan.
Rick Barnes is not the type of coach to look back on what might have been, but he did discuss how different the physicality of this game will be.
“It’s very different, no doubt it’s a different game. To be quite honest with you, I won’t allow myself to even think who we are going to play next, I just won’t. Because now I have — we put a lot of thought into Longwood because we respected them that much and what they did.
“But obviously our coaches have been working on it, and we know that they are big, and there’s no doubt they are going to pound it in there,” Barnes added. “It’s going to take a great team effort, not only from our post players doing their work early and doing their job, but the guards helping. Because we have always believed that post defense starts on the perimeter. We’ll have to have a great team effort.”
This group of players might not have much experience in the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t worry Barnes.
“So we just said, ‘Hey, let’s be ready to go from the beginning. Let’s be who we are. Let’s do what we have done to get us here. Let’s trust each other, trust what we do.'”
Now Tennessee will have almost two days to prepare for the Wolverines, knowing Juwan Howard’s team will present a bigger challenge than Longwood. However, the Vols haven’t let anyone intimidate them in the past two months, and I don’t expect anything will change come Saturday evening.
The Vols are hoping to continue proving a few folks wrong.