Tennessee’s basketball season ended without a tournament bid for a third straight season on Sunday night.
That’s how most everyone expected it would end before the season started, when Tennessee was picked to finish 13th out of the 14 teams in the SEC.
But the young Vols played so well at times this season, a .500 record ended up feeling like a disappointment to the players and fans.
UT’s 16-16 season exceeded expectations, particularly with a schedule that ranked No. 21 in the nation, according KenPom.com.
The Vols began the 2016 season with nine newcomers, lacking size and experience on the front line, and short on proven perimeter shooting.
It certainly seemed like a formula for a horrific second season for coach Rick Barnes, who was 15-19 overall and 6-12 in the SEC (12th) his first season in Knoxville.
Instead, 6-foot-5 freshman Grant Williams emerged as one of the SEC’s most promising young interior players.
Barnes seemed to squeeze maximum effort out of his team, juggling lineups and going with the hot hands.
Senior Robert Hubbs lll led the way throughout most of the season, growing into the type of player many expected the when Vols signed him as a 5-star prospect.
Hubbs shined bright with 21 points and 6 rebounds in Tennessee’s 73-71 near-miss at North Carolina, and then he scored 25 in the Vols’ marquee win of the season, 82-80 over Kentucky.
Alas, Hubbs needed to have a swollen knee drained the final month of the season, causing him to miss practices and his performance to drop off.
It was the final straw for a young team that had lost its top rebounder (John Fulkerson, elbow injury) in December, and its most explosive scorer (Detrick Mostella, dismissal) in January.
After playing its way on the NCAA Tournament bubble — the Vols’ RPI rank getting as high as No. 34 and ESPN’s bracketology projecting them in the field — Tennessee lost 7 of its final 10 games.
The flu bug swept through the team the final two weeks, sidelining starting shooting guard Jordan Bowden, and just about the time Shembari Phillips emerged as a defensive stopper, he sprained his ankle and missed the SEC Tournament.
Tennessee started four different lineups the final four games of the season.
When the final seconds ticked off — Admiral Schofield’s 3-pointer falling short in the 59-57 loss to Georgia — the Vols had four freshmen and a sophomore on the floor.
It was a young team that overachieved early and faded late, showing just enough promise for fans to be optimistic before suffering a disappointing end.
At the very least, Tennessee men’s basketball made its fans care enough to feel something instead of be indifferent.