If anyone needed another testament to the need for a fuel rewards card and a suitcase to appreciate this Tennessee basketball team’s potential, it was duly written in UT’s rally against Vanderbilt in Nashville and certified with the Vols spending another day in the SEC tournament.
Playing at home, Tennessee’s offense — for what it’s been and what there’s been of it — has failed to deliver within Thompson-Boling Arena beyond Josh Richardson.
Outside of Florida kicking sand in Smokey’s face, the Vols’ best performances have been reserved for games where its fans were largely relegated to watching on the SEC’s fledgling network.
For whatever reason, coach Donnie Tyndall’s first edition of Tennessee basketball showed once more that as abysmal and lackluster as it has looked in its 2-7 SEC home schedule, the 5-4 road version is a lot more potent.
Neutral floor was enough to draw out the best from Richardson in Tennessee’s first rally to tie it at 18, and in the second one that cut VU’s margin down to 50-47.
The rest of the Vols finally joined in after Vanderbilt rebuilt the lead to a dozen as the clock struck do-or-die time.
“I told them (in the timeout) we were going to be on our way home if we didn’t turn it around,” Richardson said. “I think we definitely picked it up from that time out.”
For the ensuing seven minutes, as Vanderbilt’s lead melted down to a 64-61 Vol advantage, UT looked like that road team in orange that could win as ugly as it had to.
It’s an effort Tennessee hasn’t shown much inside the borders of the Volunteer State, but this was the 615, not the 865.
Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena was just close enough to Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym, UT’s fans weren’t present in home game numbers and the Vols summoned their full Mad Max the Road Warrior persona from the visiting bench when it mattered.
Tennessee could no longer help that it faced the Vanderbilt team that rebuilt its image after losing to UT in Nashville. The Commodores, the fourth-youngest roster among 351 Division I schools, grew into a dangerous team that wasn’t on anybody’s wish list to face in Nashville, especially UT’s.
It couldn’t help that it took the floor directly in the wake of former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl directing his 13th-seeded Auburn team over No. 5 seed Texas A&M — the Tigers’ second upset in Nashville in as many days.
But the Vols did deliver on the things they could help. Focus, energy, teamwork, all noticeably absent at home, were present in abundance at the end as UT advanced to the quarterfinals to take on No. 2 seed Arkansas with the 67-61 win over Vanderbilt.
“We just allowed them to become the aggressor there the last five or six minutes of the game and that was our undoing,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.
It could have easily been Tyndall’s line, but this game wasn’t in Knoxville. Instead, the red-hot Commodores await the NIT’s decision as an SEC one-and-done, and it’s the Vols who will get another go at Arkansas.
As long as the Vols are the visitors, that’s not really a bad thing.
Marcus Fitzsimmons is sports editor at The Daily Times. He wrote from Nashville.