Would Elite 8 have meant best season ever?

If Tennessee had defeated Ohio State and advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time, would that have been the school's greatest season in men's basketball history? Is what you do in the NCAA Tournament your main measuring stick for a team's success?

In the minds of many: Yes.

No doubt, basketball is a tournament sport. You can lose six conference games, finish in a three-way tie for the third-best record in your league, not even win your division, yet still capture the national championship. That's what Florida did last year.

Even though Florida didn't even win the SEC East Division, last season was the best ever for Gator basketball.

But if you make the Elite Eight but don't make the Final Four, don't compete for the SEC championship, don't compete for the SEC East Division, don't win an SEC Tournament game and lose 11 games, can that be considered the best season in Vols' basketball history?

On a four-member panel on The Sports Animal's SportsTalk, three said yes.

I said no.

I love March Madness. I understand the importance and relevance of the NCAA Tournament. I dig the Sweet 16 and the Final Four.

But I don't think what you do in the NCAA Tournament completely defines your season.

If Tennessee had beaten Ohio State and lost in the Elite Eight to Memphis, the Vols would have been 25-11 and probably ranked between Nos. 15-20 in the AP poll. (I'm sure the coaches' poll would have had the Vols about 32nd). They would have gone farther in the NCAAs than any previous Tennessee team.

But they would not have an SEC regular-season championship. They would not have an SEC Tournament championship. They would not have an SEC East Division championship.

Moreover, since Ray Mears was hired in 1963, do you know how many Tennessee teams lost 11 or fewer games in a season? How about 25. That's right, 25.

Only once did Mears lose as many as 11 games in a season, and that was his first year, when he went 13-11.

This past season has been one of the most exciting in UT history. Wins over Memphis, Texas, Oklahoma State, Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Virginia to advance to the Sweet 16 highlighted the season.

But I'm having trouble saying an Elite Eight team that lost 11 games, didn't compete for an SEC title and didn't win an SEC Tournament game would be the best season in Tennessee history.

If you disagree, you obviously put more stock in the NCAA Tournament than I do. You hang your hat primarily on postseason play.

You might also argue the 25 wins would have been second in school history and the No. 5 NCAA Tournament seed was topped only four other times (2006, 2000, 1999, 1981) and the average home attendance was over 19,500.

I get that. But I can't ignore the lack of a championship of some sort. Or the 11 defeats.

Granted, if you get to the Final Four, that changes everything. That tops no SEC title or 11 losses. The Final Four is pretty much the Holy Grail of college basketball.

I think it's a quantum leap from the Elite Eight to the Final Four.

So, what would trump this past season?

Glad you asked.

Here are my top five UT seasons of all-time:

1. The 1976-77 team with Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King. The Vols went 22-6, won the SEC with a best-ever 16-2 record and beat Kentucky twice. They finished No. 9 in the final UPI poll.

2. Jerry Green was never beloved by UT fans but he did set a school record for most wins (26-7), tied for first in the SEC (12-4), advanced to the Sweet 16, lost a late lead against North Carolina that would have put the Vols in the Elite Eight and beat five ranked teams.

3. Bruce Pearl's first UT team won the East Division with a 12-4 mark, beat national champion Florida twice, won at Kentucky, beat No. 6 Texas in Austin and earned a program-high No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

4. The 1966-67 team won the SEC with a 15-3 mark behind Ron Widby, Bill Justus and Tom Boerwinkle. The Vols got a bye into the Sweet 16 and finished No. 8 in the AP poll.

5. Pearl's second UT team won 24 games – the second-most in school history – beat four ranked opponents in a row and advanced to the Sweet 16. It lost three games without its best player but won two NIT Season Tip-Off games over average foes. Not winning a title drops this team to five. Plus, this team played five more games than Pearl's first team.


Pearl was upset that Ohio State guard Ron Lewis said he could tell before the start of the second half that the Vols thought they had the game won because of a 17-point half-time lead.

``Their body language was like they knew they already had the game won,'' Lewis said.

``That's a bunch of crap,'' said an irritated Pearl, who told his team at halftime to play like it was down 10 points.

Pearl said he would call Ohio State coach Thad Matta about Lewis' comments.

Pearl also said if that were the case, then Ohio State's body language must have been the reason the Vols led by 20 late in the first half.

Pearl said he'd never coached a team that blew a 20-point lead. He said the closest he could recall on a big stage was when he as an assistant at Iowa and the Hawkeyes lost an 18-point lead to UNLV in the Elite Eight.

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