KNOXVILLE — For the first time since arriving in America from Nigeria years ago, Emmanuel Negedu isn’t excited about the final five rounds of the NCAA tournament.
It’s almost like a car accident. He’s not sure he wants to watch, or if he should, but he will.
“We should be playing in those games,” the Tennessee freshman forward said. “It’s just going to hurt, man. That’s all I can say, really. It’s going to hurt.”
Instead of finally breaking through the Sweet 16 wall, the Volunteers didn’t even get to the round of 32. They spent Saturday sulking and seething in Knoxville. The aftershocks from Friday’s 77-75 loss to Oklahoma State in Dayton, Ohio, seem far from finished.
“I can honestly say this will stick with me forever,” junior point guard Bobby Maze said. “This isn’t the kind of thing you just forget.”
UT rose to No. 8 in the national polls earlier this season. Some analysts mentioned the Vols as a potential Final Four team. But they ultimately needed a late-season rally just to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament — where they were a No. 9 seed.
The Vols won a third Southeastern Eastern Division championship in coach Bruce Pearl’s four seasons, but they didn’t repeat their first outright league title in 41 years. They advanced to their first SEC tournament championship game since 1991, but they fell seconds short of ending the program’s three-decade tourney-title drought.
They felt that loss to Mississippi State was every bit as close, painful and avoidable as Friday’s.
“We never reached our full potential,” junior wing J.P. Prince said. “I don’t think we were even close. We just never got the pieces all to fit in the right spots. We might get it close and think we’re there sometimes, but we were never consistent. Every game, it seemed like you saw a new team. When it’s like that, it’s hard.
“One of the things that made us so good last year was you knew what you were going to get from everybody. This year, you didn’t know what you were going to get.”
Pearl refused to call this season a total failure.
“We played a lot of good basketball out there,” he said of Friday’s game. “We played against a really good team, one of the better teams we played in a few weeks, and we’re right there. We were right there.”
Pearl tried to keep his postgame locker-room speech upbeat.
“I wanted them to know how close we were to being a really good team, to being a great team,” he explained. “We were really close, and at times we showed it. I wanted them to know how close they were to being in a situation where, of all the great teams in the country, only 16 were left (in the NCAA tournament). We know we missed an opportunity to do that this year, and we’re certainly disappointed.
“We talked a great deal about the things that ailed us throughout the year — that cost us in this final game — as well as some things that we needed to do in the future to fix that.”
The first step in that process will be finalizing next season’s roster. UT played below a full 13-scholarship allotment this season after the NCAA Clearinghouse flagged freshman point guard Daniel West, but West stayed in school at his family’s expense and should be back on scholarship next season. Rarely used forward Ryan Childress, the team’s only scholarship senior, will be replaced by highly touted power forward Kenny Hall from the Atlanta area.
But there could be more turnover. Guard Scotty Hopson said he’ll return for his sophomore season, but as many as three juniors — Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism and Prince — will at least explore their NBA draft possibilities. Smith is considered by many in the program as the most likely to declare for the draft, but recent weeks have led many to believe he’ll return. Regardless, Pearl said he will diligently help any player analyze his pro options.
Smith and Chism both said “we” after Friday’s loss when talking about next season’s possibilities.
“If everybody comes back, we should be one of the best teams in the nation,” sophomore center Brian Williams said. “We should learn from our defensive mistakes, and everybody should learn from their weaknesses and start improving as soon as we get back to Knoxville.”
Williams said most of the team’s problems started with “communication” issues.
“If you have four people on one page and one person’s off, you’re going to be messed up,” he said. There were only a couple of times all year where all five of us were on the same page. Every time we got a loss, it’s because we weren’t on the same page.
“That’s stuff we’ve got to learn from.”
Aside from a mini midseason scoring drought and various issues in a sloppy half-court offense, most of UT’s major issues stemmed from defensive lapses — failures to recognize and negotiate ball screens, blown switching assignments and box-out breakdowns, just to name a few.
“Our season came down to needing stops and rebounds and not getting them. It’s as simple as that,” Prince said.
“There were only two or three games where the offense didn’t come through for us. Defense was the problem.”
Disappointment dominated Friday’s postgame locker room, but many of the young players seemed more determined than despondent.
“We’re going to stay together, and we’ll be back better than ever next year,” Hopson said. “We are Tennessee, and we will be back.”
But regrets remain. This was arguably Pearl’s most talented team, after all.
“Had we not come back and beaten Mississippi State, Florida and South Carolina (late in the season), this would have been a very hard year for me,” Pearl said. “But we did win those three games and we did win the East again, for the third time in four years. And we did get to the conference tournament championship — but it was disappointing to not win that game, because I thought at that point we had a chance to prove that we may have been the best team in the SEC.
“This season could have been a little better, but it could have been a lot worse. We got good leadership down the stretch, and it took this team a while to come together. We lost five of our top nine players and four guards, but I would say that I did not get this team to play as well as it was capable of playing with enough consistency. It achieved at a high level, but we probably will walk away from this campaign and think we left a little bit on the table.”