Tennessee finished the year with the 26th toughest schedule according to Realtimerpi but as the NCAA Tournament has progressed it has become apparent that the Volunteers' slate was even tougher than that.
Xavier and Kansas were the teams that made the Elite 8 that Rick Barnes didn't see his team play.
The Vols played five games against the Final 4 teams, losing all five contests but looking at those results shows one team was clearly above the rest.
Oregon — Nov. 22, 2016
The first showdown with an eventual Final 4 team was in Maui where Barnes sent one of the youngest teams in college basketball to take on preseason top 5 opponent Oregon.
Grant Williams and Robert Hubbs III combined for just nine points and the Vols committed 25 turnovers. Surely those two things meant the Vols were defeated soundly defeated?
After trailing 45-34 with 11:26 remaining, Tennessee stormed all the way back to force overtime before eventually falling 69-65 to the Midwest Regional champs.
John Fulkerson had a career day tallying 12 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a game that gives Volunteer fans a great deal of excitement in getting the left hander back onto the court next season after missing all but 10 games due to injury.
North Carolina — Dec. 11, 2016
The Vols headed into the Dean Dome as an 18.5-point underdog with few expectations but it was quickly evident that the Big Orange came to play.
Tennessee led by as many as 15 in the first stanza and enjoyed a 44-36 halftime lead.
Barnes saw his squad take a 68-63 lead at the 4:30 mark but much like their NCAA tourney games with Arkansas and Kentucky, the Tar Heels found a way to overcome a late deficit and defeated the Big Orange 73-71.
Hubbs led the Vols with 21 points and Fulkerson was a perfect 4 for 4 from the floor.
Gonzaga — Dec. 18, 2016
Tennessee took on the 10-0 Bulldogs at Bridgestone Area in Nashville and early on it appeared the Vols were severely outclassed. The eventual No. 1 seed in the West Regional and champion jumped out to a 27-6 lead.
The 13,784 in attendance on that Sunday afternoon saw the Big Orange scratch and claw and pull within four points with 2:26 remaining in the contest with a basket by Hubbs to make the count 75-71.
One again the inexperienced Vols couldn't get over the hump and the 'Zags pulled away in the last two minutes to win 86-76.
South Carolina — Jan. 11, 2017
Tennessee enjoyed a short-lived lead at 6-4 but Frank Martin saw his club quickly start to take control with a run to take a 27-12 lead.
The Vols pulled to within six with a Williams three-point play with 15:22 remaining in regulation but that was as close as the Big Orange could get before losing 70-60 in a game that a had feel of a lot bigger margin than the final score indicated.
Tennessee shot just 32.7 percent from the floor and committed 22 turnovers against the stifling, physical defense of South Carolina.
South Carolina (G2) — Feb. 25, 2017
This one was similar to the first matchup in Knoxville.
The Vols scored first and that was their only lead of the day falling behind 27-9 early. They did pull to within 38-34 with a Hubbs layup but the domination started there for the Gamecocks.
South Carolina outscored the Vols 44-19 the rest of the way to win 82-55.
Just like the first matchup the Vols couldn't hold onto the ball, committing 20 turnovers and shot poorly from the floor (33.3 percent). After making 1 for 11 from outside the arc, the Vols made just 1 of 13 in this contest.
The two-game totals are hard to ignore when comparing the five games the Vols played against the Final 4 teams.
Field goals — 35/106 (33.0 percent)
3-point field goals — 2/24 (8.3 percent)
Turnovers — 42
One thing is certain and that is Gonzaga better be ready for a defense that is suffocating, physical and nasty.
If they are not ready for that kind of defense the Cinderella story might just continue for a few more days and being prepared for that kind of challenge isn't easy.
Just ask the Vols and many others.