The Tennessee Volunteers entered Saturday with a share of the SEC championship within their grasp. They lost that championship in an 84-80 defeat suffered at the hands of the Auburn Tigers, but they know that every setback endured before the NCAA Tournament is a mere prelude to the most important journey of all.
The Volunteers know that as frustrating as this loss was in Auburn Arena, it will be viewed as a positive moment if Tennessee can learn from it and turn it into a deep postseason run. No one wants to miss out on a championship, but if something from this game makes a Vol player more attentive or resourceful or efficient, it will be worth it.
The challenge is to make that leap from sloppy and inadequate to razor-sharp and airtight.
Tennessee’s coach knows his team has a long way to go.
“A year ago, you think about it, we win the league with five losses,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “This year we only have three. You have to learn from this. Some of the mistakes we made today, we can’t make. Not at this time of year.”
The Vols might need to be concerned about how well they are playing, but they can take a measure of comfort from this loss because it occurred on Auburn’s home floor. The Tigers are far tougher at home than on the road. Tennessee — along with the rest of the country — is now moving into a space where neutral-site basketball is a regular daily reality. Tennessee probably won’t face a crowd as hostile as this gathering in Auburn.
If Tennessee is able to adjust as a result of this defeat, and if the Vols finally make the first Final Four in the history of their men’s basketball program, people in the locker room — and throughout Knoxville — will recall this day as a time when UT hoops grew up.
Rick Barnes certainly hopes his players will absorb the lessons Saturday’s loss was meant to teach.
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