Yogi Berra, American Original and American Icon, had a saying for just about every situation. He also said, “Remember, I really didn’t say everything I said. Know this: The Tennessee Volunteers need to listen to the great Yogi in one specific way as they move forward in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
Among the many classic quotes uttered by Yogi Berra, the one which applies to the Basket-Vols before their Sunday round-of-32 game against the Iowa Hawkeyes is this: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Tennessee truly stands at a fork in its Road to the Final Four.
The Volunteers — a lot like Virginia in the same South Region — could use a shaky first-round game as fuel, or they could look at their performance and become concerned about their status, worrying that the pressure of both expectations and opportunity is too much for them.
This is a fact of life in March for highly-seeded teams which have not been to the Final Four in recent years or decades: They don’t know they can make the journey. They hope they can and they expect to, but they don’t know.
Much as putting on a New York Yankee jersey (as Berra did in his Hall of Fame career) confers upon an athlete a high set of standards, it is similar at Duke and North Carolina and Kentucky. Players go there without any ambiguity in relationship to what is expected. At Tennessee, the expectations and culture are different — not in terms of the goals set, but in terms of the program’s internal response to various achievements or failures.
At Tennessee, failing to make the Final Four will be a bitter disappointment if it happens, but few — if anyone — would run Rick Barnes out of town for that failure. At Kentucky, failing to make the Final Four after 1998 became a weight which eventually became too much for Tubby Smith despite multiple Elite Eights. Smith — if he had forged his body of work at Tennessee and not Kentucky — would not have been encouraged to seek employment elsewhere.
Cultures are different at programs until progressions of results firmly change the dynamics. A good example: Villanova the past four years under Jay Wright.
Villanova was the very good program which couldn’t get over the hump in March. Then it became a national champion again in 2016. Then it became a two-times-in-three-years champion in 2018. Then it became a blue-blood. It’s different now at Villanova.
Tennessee would love to be that kind of program, but right now, the Vols are in the “before” stage, not the “after” stage in which they weigh 60 pounds lighter and have a fuller, happier life.
It is in this larger sense that the Vols — unlike Villanova or Duke or Carolina or Kentucky — don’t “know” they can make the Final Four.
This lack of knowledge can make them doubt, or it can make them hungry.
Come to a fork in the road. Take it. Eat. Feast. Enjoy the journey and let others worry about the destination.
Play with force and intent. Don’t spend all game thinking about how awful it will be if a loss occurs. Tennessee lost as a 3 seed to 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago in the round of 32 last year. Now UT is once again eight seeds higher than its R-32 opponent. The No. 2 Vols play No. 10 Iowa in Columbus.
Come to a fork in the road. Take it.
The late Yogi Berra was spot-on as usual. We will see if the Tennessee Volunteers have the wisdom needed to listen to the great American sage of the 20th century.
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