COLUMBUS, OH (WTVF) — The last time Tennessee was on this stage it experienced the Madness of March. Eleven seed Loyola (Chicago) best the Vols on a last second shot in the second round last March.
It’s a painful memory that’s fueled this Tennessee team as it begins another NCAA Tournament run against Colgate at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Friday.
“We just remember how the NCAA Tournament ended for us last year,” Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner said Thursday. “We’re very motivated and we’ve got a lot of competitors. So we’re ready to get back out there again and play.”
No one is looking forward to getting back on the NCAA Tournament floor than Jordan Bone. It was the man he was guarding that hit the shot for Loyola before Bone missed a shot to win at the buzzer.
Bone used that disappointment as motivation to become the best point guard in the SEC this season. He averaged just shy of 14 points and a league-leading six assists per game.
“It was devastating. You had a 20 year old guy just sitting in the locker room bawling. Just bawling because I felt that loss was on me,” Bone said. “That was a very defining moment of my career. It changed the way I view the game, it changed the way I study the game and it changed the way I work.”
And it changed the way the Vols will approach every game in this year’s Big Dance.
“We understand that heartbreaking feeling,” SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams said. “So we’re coming out and playing as hard as we can understanding one game this time of year can make or break you.”
A BANNER YEAR?
With a 29-5 record this has undoubtedly been one of the best seasons in Tennessee basketball history. But so far the Vols have nothing to show for it after falling a game short of SEC regular season and tournament titles.
Now they have one last chance to hang a banner as they look to make a run to the school’s first ever Final Four.
“We’ve been in great positions this year to win championships,” forward Admiral Schofield said. “We haven’t finished, but at the same time we’ve got a great opportunity to win another one.”
Tennessee’s gone wire to wire ranked in the top 10 this season. A trip to the Final Four would cement its place among college basketball’s elite.
“Hanging a banner is just something we want to do to leave our legacy, to leave our imprint on this program,” Schofield said. “To push it forward to where it’s normal to see Tennessee in the Final Four.”
It’s a goal that if reached would ensure one of the best teams in Tennessee history will be remembered forever more.
“We want to win a national championship,” Turner said. “So anything short of that will feel like we fell short.”
Everybody’s filled out a NCAA Tournament bracket before. Some pick games using team colors or mascots to advance, but everybody tries to find an upset pick. Fifteen seed Colgate hopes to play the role of Cinderella against no. 2 seed Tennessee.
Colgate players have had friends and family members pick them to win games in their firs tournament appearance since 1996. Star point guard Jordan Burns says his brothers picked the Raiders to win the national championship.
Colgate enters the Big Dance on an 11-game winning streak, capturing the Patriot League title behind 6-10 league Player of the Year Rapolas Ivanauskas.
“We’re happy to be here,” Ivanauskas said. “But we earned it and deserve to be here.”
But even at 24-10 Colgate’s best wins have come over Bucknell. That’s a far cry from a SEC power.
Yet the Vols want take the Raiders lightly with their season riding on the line.
“They’re here for a reason,” Williams said. “They’re a talented team, they won their league. They beat a good Bucknell team to get here, so we just have to come ready for a fight.”