Mike Strange: Tennessee has resources but no Final Fours

Mike Strange
Tennessee guard Trae Golden (11) shoots over Mercer forward Jakob Gollon (20) in the first half during the first round of the NIT Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at Thompson-Boling Arena. Mercer won 75-67 over Tennessee. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Adam Brimer

Tennessee guard Trae Golden (11) shoots over Mercer forward Jakob Gollon (20) in the first half during the first round of the NIT Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at Thompson-Boling Arena. Mercer won 75-67 over Tennessee. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Now it gets serious.

After allowing us three days to catch our breath, the men’s NCAA basketball tournament resumes tonight.

It resumes, as is generally the case for the second weekend, without a local rooting interest.

I’m not piling on Tennessee. Out of 347 candidates who toed the starting line in November, a mere 16 rooting interests are left standing.

The Big Dance is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Only six of those 75 tournaments found the Vols still on the dance card at the Sweet 16 round.

So a recap won’t be a long digression.

The 1967 team got there just by showing up, receiving a bye in a 32-team bracket.

Don DeVoe’s 1981 team was the first to win a game to advance to the Sweet 16, but ran into Virginia and Ralph Sampson.

In 2000, the Vols were poised to push into the Elite Eight but discombobulated in the final minutes against North Carolina.

Fast forward to 2007. Bruce Pearl’s Vols had No. 1 seed Ohio State on the ropes in San Antonio but fell at the buzzer, 85-84. A year later, Pearl’s SEC champions were overwhelmed by Louisville.

That leaves 2010 and, at long last, a breakthrough Sweet 16 win over Ohio State in St. Louis.

Thursday is the third anniversary of Tennessee’s postseason high-water mark, a 70-69 loss to Michigan State in the Elite Eight. The Vols came up one tantalizing possession short of the Final Four.

Basketball, fair or not, is judged by the postseason. With that for a yardstick, how should Tennessee’s program be judged?

In the context of the SEC, the Vols are barely middle of the pack.

Kentucky has won eight NCAA titles. Florida has won two and Arkansas one and both the Gators and Razorbacks have been to multiple other Final Fours.

LSU has made three Final Fours. Georgia (1983) and Mississippi State (1996) even crashed the party once.

Stuck in the One Step Short Club with the Vols are Vanderbilt, Auburn, Alabama and Missouri.

Finally, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and South Carolina peaked at the Sweet 16.

But another prism emerged last week when Forbes Magazine, a leading financial journal, released its list of the 20 most valuable college basketball programs.

Tennessee, the only other SEC entry besides Kentucky, checked in at No. 14. Forbes valued the Vols at $15.5 million, showing a profit of $8.8 million in 2011-12.

I won’t burden you with an explanation of the formula. It mainly has to do with selling a lot of tickets in a big arena.

Fourteen of the 20 have national championship trophies. Eight have multiple titles.

Tennessee is one of only two on the list that has never taken a dribble in a Final Four. The other is No. 18 Xavier.

Every school ranked ahead of Tennessee has won at least one title except for No. 12 Texas and No. 13 Minnesota.

Granted, No. 7 Wisconsin’s title came in 1941, an eight-team bracket. The Badgers have been to but one Final Four since.

And No. 19 Kansas State hasn’t made a Final Four since 1964.

Still, at some point in the 75 years, they did in fact show up on the last weekend of the season.

In more recent times so have Virginia Commonwealth, Butler, George Mason, UMass, Memphis, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech.

So you wonder: What did they have that Tennessee, despite its resources, hasn’t?

And you wonder this: If Georgia and Mississippi State can find their way to a Final Four, why hasn’t Tennessee?

Those are good questions. They’ve stood the test of time.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.

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Comments » 36

alfrizzle097 writes:

Basically... empty arenas (would rather have a full 12000 seat arena than 20k with empty seats) aside from the last few years and moves like firing Jerry Green to hire Buzz Peterson.

Look at recruiting and there have only ever been three periods where they had rosters to make it possible.

Sir_Spanky writes:

Jerry "The K-Mart Queen" Green needed to be fired. Bad.

DC82_Vol writes:

What we lacked is an AD that was committed to having a winning MBB program. If the Lady Vols can attract recruits, so should the TN MBB program.

We have the fan base, the arena and financial backing but no interest from the TN brass that wants TN MBB to succeed. Maybe Hart can change that...probably not.

Pompey writes:

....the hard truth is the University of Tennessee athletics has always been average. In men's sports Knoxville has never even been close to Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, or Columbus. Poor management of the AD and a corrupt "ole boy" mentality of "good is good enough", has crippled an athletic program that has outstanding facilities. Bricks and mortar do not substitute for championships so the mind set at Tennessee must change before anything else does.......

VolunteerLifer writes:

The reason is that we have always lacked a solid recruiting base. Even when we have teams like Ernie and Bernie (NY players), we are missing other, important pieces. With today's team, we are only lacking a point guard, etc. The competition is fierce in Atlanta, the Carolinas, Virginia, Memphis and Nashville, and E Tenn doesn't produce many good players. Martin has been doing a good job of recruiting in Tennessee so far, so there is hope.

johnlg00 writes:

Anybody outside of K'ville or perhaps the SEC generally probably has no idea that UT has been in the top 5 in attendance nationally ever since TBA was built, or that it has the 14th "most valuable" basketball team in the country. Because the program has not excelled nationally, the general perception is that it CAN'T do so. It is hard to break into that chicken-and-egg cycle. The rich get richer--UK, UNC, Duke, etc.--while the poor, maybe don't get poorer, but they pretty much stay the same. A whole combination of factors must come together at the same time for a team to break out into the national consciousness that has not always been there, not all of them under the control of a particular team. Next year may well be the best chance a Vol team has had since Pearl's Elite Eight team. Then the trick is to keep it going.

lguy (Inactive) writes:

in response to Pompey:

....the hard truth is the University of Tennessee athletics has always been average. In men's sports Knoxville has never even been close to Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, or Columbus. Poor management of the AD and a corrupt "ole boy" mentality of "good is good enough", has crippled an athletic program that has outstanding facilities. Bricks and mortar do not substitute for championships so the mind set at Tennessee must change before anything else does.......

Columbus? What are you talking about? While Alabama has the most football titles, and Kentucky the most in basketball, Tennessee has held its own over the years. You're not a fan.

SummittsCourt writes:

Nothing can be done about the past so why worry about it.

Truth is, the Vols have played postseason basketball for 8 years in a row and next year they should return to the NCAA Tournament as well.

With the incoming recruiting class, the main players coming back (McRae, Stokes, Golden) and getting Maymon back this team is expected to make the Tourney and do well.

vac writes:

in response to lguy:

Columbus? What are you talking about? While Alabama has the most football titles, and Kentucky the most in basketball, Tennessee has held its own over the years. You're not a fan.

I tend to agree with Pompey. UT's rival laden Administration has no interest in fielding a championship team in men's sports. As long as butts are in the seats and $4 hotdogs are bought on a consistent basis there is no need to hire championship coaches. Especially when every three years we can hire "The" coach to bring UT back to glory and then the local media pumps sunshine up us so we buy into it. I hear the same things about CBJ as I did three years ago with CDD. Sad!

alfrizzle097 writes:

in response to Sir_Spanky:

Jerry "The K-Mart Queen" Green needed to be fired. Bad.

For Buzz Peterson? BUZZ PETERSON?!?!?!

murrayvol writes:

in response to alfrizzle097:

For Buzz Peterson? BUZZ PETERSON?!?!?!

Don't forget he was Michael Jordan's roommate.

alfrizzle097 writes:

in response to murrayvol:

Don't forget he was Michael Jordan's roommate.

Like I ever could! And all those big recruits he ALMOST got!

murrayvol writes:

in response to alfrizzle097:

Like I ever could! And all those big recruits he ALMOST got!

And all those close games we almost won.

murrayvol writes:

in response to VolunteerLifer:

The reason is that we have always lacked a solid recruiting base. Even when we have teams like Ernie and Bernie (NY players), we are missing other, important pieces. With today's team, we are only lacking a point guard, etc. The competition is fierce in Atlanta, the Carolinas, Virginia, Memphis and Nashville, and E Tenn doesn't produce many good players. Martin has been doing a good job of recruiting in Tennessee so far, so there is hope.

We've actually got a solid recruiting base....Tennessee. If we could recruit the best instate player (or even 1 of the top 3) every year, we'd have enough talent to compete nationally. That requires not only a good coach but a solid "program" that makes roundball a priority.

After Ray Mears retired we drifted from pillar to post until Bruce Pearl showed up. Things got almost great until the meltdown. Martin is doing a good job of recruiting but he needs to do a great job of recruiting. Whether he can establish a long term recruiting presence remains to be seen.

mborokyvol writes:

Mike, You may not mean to pile on the Vols but wait, you did pile on the Vols. Looking ahead to next year with the current and projected roster, I really like the Vols chances. Just behind Ky and Fla. the Vols are looking very good. Now, I know your talking about the past but with Pearl the Vols enjoyed much sucess. They haven't made it to a final four, your right. But, do you really believe Ga, Ark., MSU, Ole sis, Aub. or S.Car fans wouldn't trade their seasons with UT's over the past ten years? UT reached a #1 ranking and elite 8. Even in the past two years UT is 3 -0 against Fla. and beat KY by 30.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to mborokyvol:

Mike, You may not mean to pile on the Vols but wait, you did pile on the Vols. Looking ahead to next year with the current and projected roster, I really like the Vols chances. Just behind Ky and Fla. the Vols are looking very good. Now, I know your talking about the past but with Pearl the Vols enjoyed much sucess. They haven't made it to a final four, your right. But, do you really believe Ga, Ark., MSU, Ole sis, Aub. or S.Car fans wouldn't trade their seasons with UT's over the past ten years? UT reached a #1 ranking and elite 8. Even in the past two years UT is 3 -0 against Fla. and beat KY by 30.

Mr. Strange always seems to be just almost for the Vols. But not quite. He wants us to get a little mad at some statements while complementing us on others at the same time. It's called journalism I guess.

I DID however read the article and over all liked it. UT is and has been a solid school in it's sports over the years. Fulmer's era may have been the most legendary in football considering all the pros that came out of UT.
In basketball Pearl's early squads were as good as any team in the country including a couple that went on to the NC. Winning an NC is great but shouldn't define the school. I think Mr. Strange knows this and just couldn't say it.

ElizabethtonvolnNC writes:

in response to vac:

I tend to agree with Pompey. UT's rival laden Administration has no interest in fielding a championship team in men's sports. As long as butts are in the seats and $4 hotdogs are bought on a consistent basis there is no need to hire championship coaches. Especially when every three years we can hire "The" coach to bring UT back to glory and then the local media pumps sunshine up us so we buy into it. I hear the same things about CBJ as I did three years ago with CDD. Sad!

Here we go with another UT administration conspiracy theorist.

And if you can't see the difference between Dooley and CBJ...that blind squirrel (you) will never find an acorn!

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

That team that choked against VMI owned UK that year and they won the title. The same thing happened in the late 2000's when UT swept the eventual champion UF. UT has everything you need to be a force in bb, but for some reason they are just decent year in year out (aside from that Wade Houston team which was dreadful). I give UT fans a lot of kudos for supporting some pretty un-impressive bb over the years. Without Pat Summitt those rafters would be quite empty..

CoverOrange writes:

in response to johnlg00:

Anybody outside of K'ville or perhaps the SEC generally probably has no idea that UT has been in the top 5 in attendance nationally ever since TBA was built, or that it has the 14th "most valuable" basketball team in the country. Because the program has not excelled nationally, the general perception is that it CAN'T do so. It is hard to break into that chicken-and-egg cycle. The rich get richer--UK, UNC, Duke, etc.--while the poor, maybe don't get poorer, but they pretty much stay the same. A whole combination of factors must come together at the same time for a team to break out into the national consciousness that has not always been there, not all of them under the control of a particular team. Next year may well be the best chance a Vol team has had since Pearl's Elite Eight team. Then the trick is to keep it going.

Top 5 between 1989 and 2005? Really? I was wondering if they made top 5 this year too since KNS didn't say anything about it.

Agree with you about the trick. Next year will be a plethora of experience and talent and high expectations. Year after that, huge question mark.

CoverOrange writes:

in response to alfrizzle097:

For Buzz Peterson? BUZZ PETERSON?!?!?!

Who knew that Buzz was Buzz? Seriously, the most likely reason Buzz was hired was because he was a nice guy that wouldn't alienate the handful of fans left and wouldn't recruit thugs like Green did. The old short sighted solve one problem while creating another.

rockypop writes:

Another interesting Final Four fact is that Gene Keady, Martin's college coach and mentor, never got his Purdue team past the Elite Eight in all of his 25 years there. And, he had some really good teams. Hopefully, Martin didn't buy into everything Keady was selling.

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

in response to rockypop:

Another interesting Final Four fact is that Gene Keady, Martin's college coach and mentor, never got his Purdue team past the Elite Eight in all of his 25 years there. And, he had some really good teams. Hopefully, Martin didn't buy into everything Keady was selling.

At some point it's the players/athletes that should shoulder much of the blame for Purdue not making the final four. May be big Dog and Cuonzo lacked the skills to achieve greatness and Keady had gotten them as far as his coaching could take them. I mean John Wooden was great, but he had the best talent ever assembled in college bb.

JayTee writes:

All I can say is they play unlike anyone else. It's more like a pickup game on they play ground and no one seems to know who does what at any given time.

Once in a while you have to change the defense to stop what the other team is doing, like when Alabama was continually driving it down the lane on them in the tournament.

oldster writes:

in response to Pompey:

....the hard truth is the University of Tennessee athletics has always been average. In men's sports Knoxville has never even been close to Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, or Columbus. Poor management of the AD and a corrupt "ole boy" mentality of "good is good enough", has crippled an athletic program that has outstanding facilities. Bricks and mortar do not substitute for championships so the mind set at Tennessee must change before anything else does.......

When you make money hand over fist by being average, there is no incentive to put out the effort to be better than that. UT has made money hand over fist for years by being average because Vols' fans love them so and have so few entertainment options. It has gotten to the point that if we really love the program that we should show "tough love" and disclipline them by staying home in droves. Once they see that money does not follow mediocre, they might make an effort to improve.

oldster writes:

in response to VolunteerLifer:

The reason is that we have always lacked a solid recruiting base. Even when we have teams like Ernie and Bernie (NY players), we are missing other, important pieces. With today's team, we are only lacking a point guard, etc. The competition is fierce in Atlanta, the Carolinas, Virginia, Memphis and Nashville, and E Tenn doesn't produce many good players. Martin has been doing a good job of recruiting in Tennessee so far, so there is hope.

The state of Tennessee has always had a good base of recruiting for basketball. TN has had good to great players available every year. Not all, or even most, were/are from Memphis. UT let most of them go elsewhere while they look for average players from GA, etc.

oldster writes:

in response to lguy:

Columbus? What are you talking about? While Alabama has the most football titles, and Kentucky the most in basketball, Tennessee has held its own over the years. You're not a fan.

As much as it pains me to say it, OSU has been very successful, on the national scene in both major sports. So, Pompey is right, 81.

oldster writes:

in response to murrayvol:

And all those close games we almost won.

And Chris Lofton, and Juwan Jones, and the other players that he recruited that no one else wanted that were the core of the team that Pearl won with so well.

budd#207344 writes:

in response to Pompey:

....the hard truth is the University of Tennessee athletics has always been average. In men's sports Knoxville has never even been close to Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, or Columbus. Poor management of the AD and a corrupt "ole boy" mentality of "good is good enough", has crippled an athletic program that has outstanding facilities. Bricks and mortar do not substitute for championships so the mind set at Tennessee must change before anything else does.......

Until recently Tennessee led the conference in overall SEC titles. We were surpassed by Florida. Given Florida's size and recruiting territory they are the average ones taking this long to pass us in titles. Please know what you are talking about before you post here.

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

in response to oldster:

The state of Tennessee has always had a good base of recruiting for basketball. TN has had good to great players available every year. Not all, or even most, were/are from Memphis. UT let most of them go elsewhere while they look for average players from GA, etc.

Memphis is so far removed from the rest of Tennessee that it's almost impossible for UT to consistently land top talent out of Shelby County.Memphis St, Ole Miss, Miss St, Bama, Arky St, UT Martin, and Delta St, are all closer to Memphis than Knoxville is. I know UT's medical university is located in Memphis so there will always be a faction of UT alumni in Southwest Tennessee. However, with the influence of 4 different states in the area it and many of the work force commuting daily in&out of the Memphis area it's a difficult place for one university to dominate.

hikerdude writes:

in response to alfrizzle097:

Basically... empty arenas (would rather have a full 12000 seat arena than 20k with empty seats) aside from the last few years and moves like firing Jerry Green to hire Buzz Peterson.

Look at recruiting and there have only ever been three periods where they had rosters to make it possible.

Firing Jerry Green was one of the better moves made by a UT AD. He took some of the best BB talent UT ever had and let them play totally undisciplined street ball. Hiring Buzz, not such a great move.

Volbound1700 writes:

Not trying to make excuses but sometimes you have to have luck to make Final Four. In 2008, Tennessee probably had its best team in Pearl era but got stuck in a very difficult bracket with Butler, Louisville and UNC. In 2010 Tennessee lucked out because their bracket was full of upsets and we should have went to the FF not because we were that good but because our bracket was blown up.

alfrizzle097 writes:

in response to oldster:

And Chris Lofton, and Juwan Jones, and the other players that he recruited that no one else wanted that were the core of the team that Pearl won with so well.

Talking about Jajuan Smith? That would be like giving Pearl credit for any wins Martin got with Skylar Mcbee on the roster. They were both walk ons. Lofton you have to give him a little credit for, but noone in their right minds thinks that Peterson would have done anything with him.

oh... and that Dane Bradshaw kid! Yeah, let's give Peterson credit for that too! Clearly he had a vision for a 6'4" power forward!

Peterson was a terrible hire. Always was. Green may have had his flaws, but you don't fire a guy who had as much success as anyone had ever had at UT for freaking BUZZ PETERSON! Just like you don't fire your national championship head football coach for a guy who has never been a head coach in college and his boss from his only head coaching position has nothing good to say about him!

You fire someone to get an upgrade! Don't just do it for the heck of it. The reason UT doesn't have any final fours is because of people that say "Jerry had to go!" like that justified the decision when they had NO VISION FOR SOMETHING BETTER!

So to all the people that think Martin needs to go, who do you recommend? Shaka Smart, Buzz Williams, and Mike Anderson weren't exactly knocking down the doors two years ago. "But we had sanctions hanging over our heads! They'll want to come now!" Yeah, they'll want to come to a place that wants to fire a guy TWO YEARS after inheriting a mess of a situation... and actually getting above average results!

I miss the days when you actually gave someone four years barring egregious lack of performance.

What if the Vols win the SEC next year on the back of strong offensive rebounding from Stokes and Maymon? What if they make the Sweet 16 and have another strong recruiting class? What if Hubbs and Thompson quickly turn into top tier guards? Alot of IFS. But that's what you're going to get if you fire a respected coach to hire....Andy Enfield? They could probably get him... but how is that realistically a better result? "At least he's made a NCAA tournament!" *sigh*

oldster writes:

Yeah, it was Jajuan Smith. He was a walk on, like McBee, but was an invited one by Peterson. I do not know that Peterson could have done anything with him or Lofton. I did not think much of him as a coach, either. However, he did see talent that others missed, so he should be given credit where it is due.

I like to win, but not at all costs. I do not think it is necessary to be a jerk to win. If it does, then I really don't care to even play. Jerry Green was a jerk. He recruited jerks. Jerks that could play basketball to be sure, but jerks just the same.

I also agree about only firing when you have an upgrade at hand. Kiffin for Fulmer was bad. Dooley for Fulmer (which it ultimately was) was worse. How is it going to be with Jones for Fulmer has yet to be seen, but it is doubtful that it will be good, either (do you really think Jones will ever win a national championship here? UT went 47 years between their last two).

I would not fire Cuonzo. I just would not renegotiate or give him a raise until he actually accomplishes something on the floor. To do otherwise would set a bad precedent. Prices for coaches are escalating fast enough as it is. There is no need to give it a boost. What do we think UT is, the federal government?

murrayvol writes:

in response to oldster:

And Chris Lofton, and Juwan Jones, and the other players that he recruited that no one else wanted that were the core of the team that Pearl won with so well.

You mean Jujuan Smith I'm sure but I get your point.

Chris Lofton was a shooter under Buzz and nothing more. Jujuan (a walkon) didn't play much or well until Bruce showed up.

Love him or hate him, and many do, Bruce Pearl had a rare ability among coaches. He could take his and beat yours or he could take yours and beat his.

I give Buzz some credit for recognizing talent in both players and wives but he was not a good coach.

rclarkvols#224537 writes:

in response to JayTee:

All I can say is they play unlike anyone else. It's more like a pickup game on they play ground and no one seems to know who does what at any given time.

Once in a while you have to change the defense to stop what the other team is doing, like when Alabama was continually driving it down the lane on them in the tournament.

A point guard who is quick and can defend chnages the whole dynamic of what a coach can do. We don't have that yet. Trey is a good offensive player but Jarnell is quicker than Trey.

alfrizzle097 writes:

in response to oldster:

Yeah, it was Jajuan Smith. He was a walk on, like McBee, but was an invited one by Peterson. I do not know that Peterson could have done anything with him or Lofton. I did not think much of him as a coach, either. However, he did see talent that others missed, so he should be given credit where it is due.

I like to win, but not at all costs. I do not think it is necessary to be a jerk to win. If it does, then I really don't care to even play. Jerry Green was a jerk. He recruited jerks. Jerks that could play basketball to be sure, but jerks just the same.

I also agree about only firing when you have an upgrade at hand. Kiffin for Fulmer was bad. Dooley for Fulmer (which it ultimately was) was worse. How is it going to be with Jones for Fulmer has yet to be seen, but it is doubtful that it will be good, either (do you really think Jones will ever win a national championship here? UT went 47 years between their last two).

I would not fire Cuonzo. I just would not renegotiate or give him a raise until he actually accomplishes something on the floor. To do otherwise would set a bad precedent. Prices for coaches are escalating fast enough as it is. There is no need to give it a boost. What do we think UT is, the federal government?

As long as we aren't defending the Buzz Peterson hire, I can respect your opinion. You don't have to lose to be a good person!

The argument for giving Martin a raise is that he HAS done it on the court. Second and fourth (was it fifth?) in the SEC but only three coaches behind him in pay? He has an argument, especially when you consider they were without an all sec player this year. I mean, imagine if you have Jeronne getting as many rebounds as Kenny did personal fouls.... that's alot of extra possessions.

So this isn't a ridiculous conversation, but I think I agree with you. Just wait and see. Let him continue to work on the contract both sides agreed to until there is significant oomph to either argument.

As far as holding Jones to a national championship standard, I don't think he has to do that to be an upgrade over where the Fulmer trajectory would have gone. My belief is that they would still be in the top three in the East, in the mix for division titles many years, but its not realistic to think the 90s were going to come back either. If Jones can get them back in the mix, finishing ahead of one of the other three in the East, then I think you can safely say that they're at least back in the Fulmer range. If you can win a couple championships, then you may have finally upgraded.

Regardless, if they amass a record of 22-17 in three years while playing a reasonable nonconference schedule, and people start saying that Jones has to go without giving him a fourth... I'll be upset. Play it out, people.

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