Duke fans naturally took an interest in Tennessee’s game vs. Florida Atlantic Thursday after the Vols pushed Duke around last weekend. We had FAU to advance even though they were much smaller because you don’t get to 33-3 unless you're pretty special.
You could argue that 33-3 (now 34-3) is easy to pull off at a smaller conference, but that’s really not true. Actually, it’s harder.
You’re not going to get McDonald’s All-American’s at a school like FAU. No knock on the school, but it’s not a top-tier university. It just has limitations.
Or at least it did.
Dusty May, who got his bachelor’s in hoops as a student manager at Indiana late in the Knight era, has turned out to be a terrific coach. He beat Tennessee with four starters under 6-4 and after what UT did to Duke, that’s really extraordinary.
But what really made an impression was reading the comments from Vols coach Rick Barnes and his players, because they basically gave up.
Josiah Jordan-James said “[t]hey wanted it more. That’s tough to say.”
For his part, Barnes said this, and it’s striking:
You know what, when you talk about games and substitution, we’re around these guys so much and we read their body language, we feel like we know where they are. Some of that has to do with that answer not just on the offensive end but it’s the defensive end, too. We had some breakdowns with certain players today that we just felt like they weren’t locked in as much as they needed to be.
“And then some guys were in arguably one of the biggest games of their lives, and you could just — body language, we just didn’t feel like they were locked in as much as we needed them to be. You’d expect them to be, but it’s a big stage.”
He also said this about center Uros Plavsic, who has been a bit of a lighting rod for Tennessee because of crap like this.
“I’d like to think that Uros certainly helped us. He got a little bit too emotional tonight and it came back on him.”
Translation: Uros really screwed us good this time and I don’t understand why he continues to be such a jerk.
If you google Plavsic or Tennessee basketball, the word dirty pops up as a search option. Even Barnes has been sick of him at times.
We put our chips on FAU because we thought they were better coached and more cohesive than Tennessee, and also because Barnes has never been a great tournament coach. Even when he had Kevin Durant at Texas, an absolute lock for the Hall of Fame, Barnes couldn’t get past the first weekend. He did make the Elite Eight the following season, 2007-08, but since then he’s made the Sweet Sixteen just twice, this year obviously and in 2018-19.
Like UCLA and Xavier, the Vols were missing a critical piece with point guard Zakai Ziegler out and that hurt too. All three teams have done well despite their injuries, but losing a key player just makes it so much tougher.
Even so, it’s just really surprising to see a mature, older team roll over like this, and to admit it. Part of it comes down to FAU just being tougher and better, but part of it comes down to Tennessee not being able to bully FAU like they did Duke, and then not being able to win the game with superior skill, passion and cohesion.
To put it more bluntly, bullies always fall apart when their target fights back. Good on Florida Atlantic for standing up to it.
The next question will be if they can hold on to May. He’s going to get a lot of offers and is in a position to make a major move up. FAU’s salary, at roughly half a million, is far less than his market value and he’s shown he has real chops.
His best move, like Tobin Anderson who just left Fairleigh Dickinson, or Seton Hall’s Shaheen Holloway, who left Saint Peter’s after last year’s magical NCAA run, is going to be to strike while the iron is hot. His only question is where he’ll land. Notre Dame, in his home state of Indiana, would have been a great fit but he’ll have plenty of options after what he’s accomplished.