Barnes believes Vols will look back on season with pride

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee players gather on the Madison Square Garden court Thursday night before what would ultimately be a season-ending loss to Florida Atlantic in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

A Tennessee basketball season containing decisive victories over Alabama, Duke, Kansas and Texas ended late Thursday night with a 62-55 loss to Florida Atlantic in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 in New York City.

The Volunteers used their five seniors to wear down down the freshman-filled Blue Devils last Saturday, but that same veteran quintet combined to shoot 14-of-50 against the Owls. As soon as something started to make sense for this season's Tennessee team, it didn't, which will leave plenty of Vols pondering what could have been in the days, weeks and months ahead.

"I'm certainly proud of the effort these guys have given all year through some tough times with injuries," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said in a news conference following the defeat inside Madison Square Garden. "When it ends like this, it's always disappointing, because we want it all but came up short."

There were times Tennessee looked like a team that could win it all, as an 82-71 thumping of Texas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Jan. 28 lifted the Vols to an 18-3 record and to a No. 2 ranking. The Vols would go just 7-8 the rest of the way, dealing with an ankle injury that sidelined senior guard Josiah-Jordan James most of February and the season-ending ACL tear sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler sustained on Feb. 28.

Still, there were the games of promise down the stretch against Alabama and Duke.

"A lot of people don't know all the things we've been through internally," James said. "Even to make it this far is a blessing. People were counting us out after the second game against Colorado. We're proud of ourselves, and though we wanted more, nobody in that locker room gave up."

Barnes pointed out that Tennessee did not have a healthy roster since Feb. 8, adding, "There is no doubt we improved, or else we wouldn't be here today."

Tyreke Key became the fifth senior on this year's team after transferring from Indiana State, and he joined the quartet of James, Olivier Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic and Santiago Vesvovi. The foursome went 17-14 as freshmen and were unlikely to make the 2020 NCAA tournament before it was canceled by the coronavirus outbreak, but they were the nucleus of the past three NCAA tourney teams and capped their careers with the program's ninth all-time Sweet 16 trip.

The seniors came from all over, with Nkamhoua hailing from Finland, Plavsic from Serbia and Vescovi from Uruguay.

"Honestly, we were lucky with the language barrier," Nkamhoua said earlier in the week. "By the time we made it to school, we all knew how to speak English, so that was a big help for us. Having the other cultures to learn from, including guys from even all over the United States, helped us to learn from each other and grow together."

Said Vescovi: "When it comes to the locker room, you can never get bored. You always have something different going on. You have guys with stories from all around the world."

Tennessee's seniors will have stories to tell in the next few weeks, as James, Nkamhoua, Plavsic and Vescovi have the option of using the pandemic-related extra year of eligibility to return to Knoxville. Five-star freshman forward Julian Phillips has to determine whether he will join recent one-and-done performers such as Keon Johnson, Jaden Springer and Kennedy Chandler, and there is always the NCAA transfer portal that can giveth and taketh away.

"These seniors have won a lot of games for us, and it's hard being in the locker room with those guys when you know how hard they've worked," Barnes said. "I wish we had a full allotment of players, but we didn't, and it's a compliment to our seniors. They're the ones who stayed together and didn't get down on each other.

"In so many ways they represented Tennessee in a first-class way, and they're what we want our program to be about. The Sweet 16 is something to be proud about, but when you get there, you want more. In a couple of weeks, they're going to look back and realize they've got a lot to be proud of."

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