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AP photo by James Crisp / Tennessee redshirt junior forward John Fulkerson celebrates after the Vols rallied from 17 points down in the second half to beat No. 6 Kentucky 81-73 on March 3 in Lexington.

Before COVID-19 changed everything in all of our lives, Monday night was supposed to be the grand finale of the 2019-20 college basketball season.

As had been done every single spring since 1939, an NCAA Division I men's champion would be crowned. As had been the case every final Monday since 1987, the highlights montage "One Shining Moment" would fill Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium at the close of the evening.

Alas, on March 12, the NCAA tournament was canceled, March Sadness replacing March Madness. College basketball at all levels was done for the year, and, if we're lucky, only this year.

But assuming all this goes away by November, who's best positioned to possibly cut the down the nets in Indianapolis next April 5? Could the Tennessee Volunteers be in the mix for their first Final Four berth? Could the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga make the 68-team field?

Conversely, could one of the sports' blue bloods collapse as epically as North Carolina did this past season in finishing 14-19?

Let's start with the Vols, who currently have the nation's No. 5 recruiting class, will theoretically welcome back the vast majority of a roster that finished 17-14 overall and 9-9 in Southeastern Conference play against a difficult schedule, defeated Kentucky on the road and nearly upset final No. 1 Kansas in the Jayhawks' Allen Fieldhouse.

With starters Santiago Vescovi, Energizer bunny John Fulkerson, defensive whiz Yves Pons and former prep All-American Josiah-Jordan James about to be joined by five-star guard recruits Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, as well as 6-foot-7 grad transfer EJ Anosike, it's hard not to see the Vols spending much of next season in the top 10, if not higher for the second time in three seasons.

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AP photo by Julie Bennett / Tennessee junior Yves Pons works for a shot against Auburn guard J'Von McCormick on Feb. 22 in Auburn, Ala.

In fact, the physical forward Anosike — whose sister Nicky once starred for the Lady Vols and currently plays in the WNBA — might tip UT from very good to great if he can come close to matching the 15.7 points and 11.6 rebounds per game he averaged last season at Sacred Heart.

The Vols' one major weakness last winter was on the glass, where UT was a shaky 1.1 to the good for the season. Anosike almost certainly changes that.

As for UTC, sometimes the biggest challenge a coach faces when rebuilding a program largely from scratch is teaching his players what it takes to win night in and night out, embracing that consistency of effort that so often separates champions from chumps.

Fourth-year Mocs coach Lamont Paris seemed to take a giant step in that direction in his third season, the Mocs finishing a tough-luck 20-13, losing 72-70 to Wofford inside the final minute of their Southern Conference tourney semifinal.

If Paris can find a perimeter threat to replace forward Matt Ryan and more stability at point guard — Maurice Commander has already announced his intent to transfer — UTC should have its best team since the 2016 squad that reached March Madness.

And unlike that squad, which lost to an Indiana team that should have been a higher seed, next year's Mocs just might be capable of upsetting someone in the opening round.

Then again, as North Carolina — which began the season ranked ninth nationally and wound up tied for the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings — proved, tradition and reputation aren't always your friends.

This year's North Carolina just might be Kentucky, which could prove to be as fragile as the Tar Heels if returning junior starters Immanuel Quickley, the SEC player of the year, and power forward EJ Montgomery both exit Lexington for the NBA, as is being rumored.

Let that happen and the Wildcats will lose all five starters from this year's regular-season SEC championship squad. Let that happen and Big Blue would enter next season with a top-rated recruiting class but little else. Yes, transfers and grad transfers could fill in some holes. But with no returning point guard or post player if Quickley and Montgomery both depart, it's easier to see Kentucky following North Carolina's 2019-20 season than making any serious NCAA tourney run.

Moreover, the cost of such a Kentucky collapse could leave it knocked off its long-held spot atop college hoops' all-time wins list, since the Cats are currently but 16 ahead of Kansas, which figures to challenge for its eighth 30-win (or more) season in 12 years.

Again, let either Quickley, Montgomery or both return, a couple of grad transfers join in — Kentucky is already rumored to be in the mix for 7-3 Purdue grad transfer Matt Haarms — and the Wildcats could be good enough to make a prophet of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who has them as a No. 1 seed in his way-too-early bracket for next spring.

But those appear to be big ifs at the moment. Without both Quickley and Montgomery, Big Blue could be headed for a very big fall.

As for the rest of the sport, let's go with an obscenely early Final Four of Gonzaga, UCLA, Villanova and Wisconsin, with the Zags finally capturing their first national championship.

But first, let's end this basketball season with the following words of wisdom from UT coach Rick Barnes, who said last month of the daily challenges we're all facing: "It's a surreal time. It's not about us, it's about our country and the safety of our country."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

 

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