KNOXVILLE – With the NCAA tournament already in full swing, it’s hard to not take a step back and think of what might’ve been for the Vols.
After falling just short of making the field of 68, Tennessee’s season ended Wednesday night with an uninspiring 75-67 loss at the hands of the Mercer Bears in the first round of the NIT. Was that the result of UT not caring about the second-rate postseason tournament or a case that this team wasn’t truly deserving of NCAA tournament considerations?
That’s up for debate.
But coach Cuonzo Martin said after the Mercer loss that this team shouldn’t be defined by the two-game losing streak (Mercer and a 58-48 loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament) that ended its season prematurely.
He’s right on some levels. The Vols (20-13) finished the regular season by winning eight of their last nine games, transforming themselves from SEC bottom feeder to NCAA tournament bubble team in the process. After losing their first six road games, they finally figured out how to win away from Thompson-Boling Arena – winning four of their last five on the road, including a four-overtime thriller at Texas A&M on Feb. 23.
That doesn't erase the memory of the team's shortcomings in March, though. A team that had all the answers for nearly two month just seemed to run out of juice when the lights were the brightest.
The 2012-13 squad does leave behind a respectable list of victories – Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Wichita State, UMass and Xavier were all quality Ws.
There were frustrating losses, too. In addition to the two-game losing streak that ended the season, the Vols fell to Georgia (twice) and at Arkansas. Though they were quality opponents, a two-game stretch against Georgetown and Virginia yielded the Vols just 74 total points and two losses in non-conference play.
Being swept by eventual SEC tournament champion Ole Miss was somewhat understandable, but allowing Marshall Henderson, the SEC’s resident villain, to drop a combined 60 points in those games was maddening for the UT faithful.
There were plenty of other storylines this season. Jarnell Stokes overcame a slow start to have some dominating games, especially on the boards. Point guard Trae Golden, one of the catalysts in 2011-12, struggled through much of 2012-13 before finding his touch to help fuel the late season run. Senior Skylar McBee courageously fought through a torn ligament in his elbow to play the rest of his senior season. With Jeronne Maymon (knee) out, the Vols eventually ditched the traditional two-big lineup in favor of a four-guard look.
With the season now in the books, here’s a look at the best and the worst of Tennessee’s 2012-13 campaign:
Team MVP: Jordan McRae
McRae went from role player to sixth man to top scorer in the past year. The lanky 6-5 guard became one of the top scoring threats in the SEC, averaging 15.7 ppg total and finishing third in scoring in conference games with an average of 19.2 ppg. McRae took his scoring to a new level around mid-February. He scored at least 21 points in every game of a five-game stretch from Feb. 19 to March 6, including a career-high 35 points at Georgia.
Runner up: Jarnell Stokes
Biggest disappointment: Jeronne Maymon’s injury
After an offseason knee procedure, forward Jeronne Maymon was hoping to return by the time UT began the season. That return date was pushed back to November. Then it was December. It turned into the thought that he could return for SEC play. And, finally, on Jan. 6, Maymon and the coaching staff opted for him to sit the rest of the year and take a medical redshirt – preserving his final year of eligibility for next year. The Vols lost perhaps their most complete player, a 6-7 post who is one of the league’s top rebounders, scorers and an underrated ball handler for his size.
Runner up: Trae Golden’s cold streak
Best newcomer: Armani Moore
The relatively unheralded recruit struggled early, averaging just 4.8 minutes per contest through the first 13 games of the season as a backup point guard. Martin moved Moore off the ball, allowing him to play more on the wing, and his comfort level instantly increased. He moved into the starting lineup in late January and never lost that role. He became one of the team’s best rebounding guards, pulling down five or more in six contests. He’s one of the team’s best overall athletes and could develop into a high-level SEC player if his offensive skills continue to develop.
Runner up: Quinton Chievous
Unsung hero: Josh Richardson
He does it all. He just doesn’t get as much credit for it. The 6-6 sophomore wing regularly drew the task of guard an opponent’s best player. Despite all the energy he used on the defensive side of the floor, he still averaged 7.9 ppg and led the team in scoring (16) against Alabama in the SEC tournament. He led all guards in rebounding (4.3 rpg) and was sometimes even asked to help defend in the post when the Vols were in the four-guard lineup.
Runner up: Kenny Hall
Best game: Beating Kentucky 88-58 on Feb. 16 in Knoxville
Though the Wildcats eventually fell short of the NCAA tournament, they were ranked No. 25 at the time and UT put together its best overall effort of the season. The Vols shot 58 percent from the field and hit all five of their 3-point attempts in the victory. Everybody seemed to get in on the action – seven players scored eight points or more.
Runner up: Beating Florida 64-58 on Feb. 26 in Knoxville
Worst game: Losing at Georgetown 37-36 on Nov. 30
It was an ugly game for both teams. It proved to be very costly for UT in the end. Despite a strong defensive effort, the Vols couldn’t score in the last 4:25 of the game and missed two-potential game-winning shots in the closing seconds. No Vol scored in double figures and UT shot just 36.4 percent from the field, 14.3 percent from 3 and 44.4 percent from the line. Had Tennessee found a way to win against the eventual second-seeded Hoyas, the Vols would likely be in the NCAA tournament this weekend.
Runner up: Losing to Alabama 58-48 in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament on March 15
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga