ORLANDO, FL — If psychology didn’t matter in the NCAA Tournament, Purdue would have taken it easy on Fairleigh Dickinson and settled for a 40-point win, Furman-Virginia wouldn’t have happened this weekend at the Amway Center, and Xavier wouldn’t have needed a late charge to overtake Kennesaw State.
And there is no St. Peter’s, no UMBC, and so forth. If it didn’t matter, I don’t think we would have seen Tennessee point guard Santiago Vescovi dance balls off his feet before the whistle blows to start the second half of Saturday’s game at Amway, smiling and engaged inside. Joke with some of the writers in journalism class who cover volumes. He had the air of a player keeping it light in some regular season NBA games in February. Not a guy who puts too much on his shoulders for his team, tries to physically intimidate his opponents, and his college career needs a great half of basketball against Duke to keep going.
“I felt great,” Vescovi said later in that moment, standing in a locker room full of guys who felt so much better than that, after they put a run on Duke 65-52, to advance to the Sweet 16 and continue the story of together and gag. Skeptics, haters, tweeters, slanders Rick Barnes and apparently even the makers.
Seconds after Vescovi came up in line for the press, the other senior point guard to lead this team, Josiah-Jordan James, went down a 3-pointer from the top of the corkscrew to go up the nine, and Tennessee was out. Free, easy, aggressive, focused and determined. The East’s No. 4 seed Vols (25-10) has taken on the No. 5 Blue Devils seed (27-9) because they are older and more experienced. Because the role players played their roles and then some, Olivier Nkamehwa far exceeded that by scoring 23 of his 27 points in the second half.
Because they took a perfect plan from Barnes and his staff and executed it. They brought Duke “in the mud” with them, as assistant manager Justin Jenney implored them to do during Friday’s preparations.
And because, just as Tennessee’s physicality was Duke’s enemy, psychology was Tennessee’s friend.
This had not been the case in this program’s nine previous NCAA games under Barnes. UT was expected to win all of them. UT was expected to make the rounds. The Vols often played as if feeling the weight and burden of Barnes’ March history. They’ve won by just five goals, including a wobbly 58-55 escape Thursday against No. 14-ranked Louisiana. It was especially evident a year ago in Indianapolis, the same round, as No. 3 seed and Final Four components, outscored 22-8 in the final seven minutes of No. 11 seed Michigan after taking a six-point lead.
Saturday’s lead was five with seven minutes remaining. It was 14-6 volumes from there.
“This is a different team,” Barnes said, and this was a much different situation. Playing an interesting team wearing a jersey is perhaps the biggest brand in sports and hearing all about you having no chance of winning tends to take the pressure off and add grit.
“We had a big bulletin board of talking heads, people who were experts in their field, talking about how Duke was a much more talented team, they’re better than us,” James said. “We’ve seen Vegas have them beat us even though we’re the top seed…money line or whatever you call it. I don’t know how the bets work, but I think we had a minus 3. Or a plus 3. So yeah. Obviously people didn’t believe We will win.”
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Had these people thought hard about what the Vols did in dealing with Alabama, Kansas, and Texas this season, among other statements for a team that had historic defensive efficiency numbers for most of the season, it might have been different. But Tennessee has lost seven of its 13 games going into Saturday and starting point guard Zakai Ziegler due to a torn ACL. Duke has won 10 in a row, including the ACC Tournament title.
“Everyone has the right to their own opinion,” said James. “They just so happened to be wrong about this.”
Psychology will cease to be a friend of the Vols, at least as much, Thursday at New York’s Madison Square Garden against No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic or No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson who knocked out top seed Purdue in the biggest upset in tournament history. Tennessee is expected to top either of them and advance to the second Elite in program history, then stand a real shot at the first Final Four.
But this win is huge on its own and should erase a lot of the stress and grievance, no matter what’s going on in New York. The other Barnes Tennessee team to make it this far, the 2018-19 squad led by Grant Williams, was a Final Four favorite all season. She did not get a squeaker past No. 7 seed Iowa in the second round. That team was largely ruled out once Ziegler fell on February 28 in Arkansas. This team has now achieved something.
The smile on Barnes’ face said as much as he emerged from the locker room victorious, heading to his press conference and telling a reporter waiting to enter, “That was good, wasn’t it?”
Taking his seat on the raised stage, Barnes said, “There wasn’t a single person who got in that game for us today who didn’t help us.”
Uros Plavsik set the tone, or threw the first handful of mud, by throwing his 7-1, 265-pound, 24-year-old. He made two quick misses, not ideal, but the physique was proven. Jonas Aidu, Durham, NC A kid who grew up cheering North Carolina State and hating Duke, came up to Plavsitch and immediately established himself defensively. He’s been all over the place, as Duke Derek Lively II at defensive end for the Blue Devils. When Aidoo threw Jacob Grandison lunging at an unsuspecting Toba, he let out a flurry of loud words.
“So many bad words,” Aido said, and he must have had Duke mutter a few times as the day progressed.
Vescovi hit big shots and scored 14. James made crucial plays at both ends. Nqmah, the big 6-9 whose offensive gifts come and go like so many aspects of this team, exploded. When first-year Duke coach John Scheer went into territory in the second half, swiveled toward Vescovi and designed in part to protect guard Jeremy Roach and his four fouls, Nakamua found space in the middle of the area to connect with midrange shots.
Then he started hitting three-pointers. Then he crammed his house with a one-handed James fail. Nekmoh scored 13 consecutive points, tying his career high-scoring and nearly tripling his average per game. UT’s lead grew from four to 11 during his takeover. He also did the job defensively on Duke’s leading scorer Kyle Filipowski (6 of 16, 13 points, one bleeding cut under his eye). But then everyone else did the job defensively for Tennessee. Duke scored 33 points in the last 28 minutes of the game and scored an all-time low in an NCAA loss.
This was a plan and execution in a symphony. Besides a dry-erase board with examples of Vols disrespect, Barnes showed his team plenty of movies on Friday. He took crazy turnovers from the Louisiana game and made a lot of biting comments. Then, along with regular scouting reports at Duke, he showed the Vols what teams like Miami and NC State have done in bullying the young Blue Devils around the basket this season.
The Vols knew, as Duke was playing, that they had no real matching problems, they’d be fine with switching everything up and it could affect the Blue Devils physically.
“Take them in the mud – they might drown in it,” said Plavsitch.
“Habit wins out in the end,” James said. “And that’s what we do day in and day out. We don’t think anyone can emulate what we do, or do what we do every day.”
Duke had to overcome a knee injury Friday for starter Mark Mitchell, who tested it in the warmup and couldn’t go. Of course, Tennessee had to come to terms with an official blunder when star guard Duke Roach was called for a fifth foul with 8:51 left and the officials changed it to Therese Proctor, even though Roach clearly made the foul and Proctor made no contact.
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In the end, it was easy to determine which team was the best on the day. Then some of the players on that team lost the victory.
Like Plavsik, on how many people have picked folders to lose: “I watched the selection show, and I heard what they said about us. … They said we were going to lose in the first round. I don’t think that happened, right?”
Like James, about the fans who gave up on this team: “I mean, don’t try to change now. Don’t try to come cheer with us. We’ve got everything we need now, we’ve got the people we need. And you guys can stay on that side.”
As Jahmai Mashack, on those denigrating Barnes: “It’s actually unbelievable the amount of criticism he gets because he’s such a great coach.”
And James, about the same: “Anytime people say any kind of insanity like that, about how his record is the way it is in March, we take it as disrespectful to ourselves and him.”
The passion in those comments was seen in the performance as well. Barnes was proud of that, and he should have been. It made it one of his biggest wins in the state of Tennessee. It was the 779th of his career, tying Basketball Hall of Famer Lou Henson for 15th on the all-time list. He got him to 27-26 in the NCAA Tournament and to the Sweet 16 for only the second time since 2008, which explains why there’s so much fodder to piss off his players.
But this group has a real chance to double the final four. All of the Vols played well in their biggest win yet. They only had nine turnovers against other elite defenses, showing no offensive gains as they cope without Ziggler. The other end of the floor would be their ticket, if they could bring some of that Florida slush to Manhattan.
(Tennessee Volunteers’ Aros Blavsic, left, top photo celebrating shooting Duke: Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)