KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Rick Barnes believes Loyola-Chicago has a realistic possibility of capping its improbable postseason run with a title.
“I think they have as good a chance as anybody to win the national championship,” Barnes said Monday.
Barnes is all too familiar with Loyola after his third-seeded Volunteers lost 63-62 to the 11th-seeded Ramblers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Loyola (32-5) followed up that upset by knocking off Nevada and Kansas State to win the East Region in its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1985.
Loyola faces Michigan (32-7) and Villanova (34-4) meets Kansas (31-7) in Saturday’s NCAA semifinals at San Antonio.
“When you watch them play, every game, they’re a really high-efficient offensive team, a very, very good defensive team,” Barnes said. “So they’ve got as good a chance as anybody.”
Tennessee was 0-2 against Final Four participants, as it lost 85-76 to Villanova in the Battle 4 Atlantis at Paradise Island, Bahamas, before falling to Loyola in the NCAA Tournament. Last season, Tennessee faced each of the teams that ended up in the Final Four .
Loyola ended Tennessee’s season in heartbreaking fashion. Tennessee had gone on a late 8-0 run to take a one-point lead before Loyola’s Clayton Custer hit a jumper with 3.6 seconds left that bounced high off the rim and hit the glass before falling through.
The close call should give Tennessee plenty of offseason incentive as it returns the nucleus of its team and pursues the program’s first Final Four berth.
“Last year when we got knocked out of the SEC Tournament , there was a week there where you’re angry, you’re mad because you always feel like you could do more,” Barnes said. “The question is how long does it take you to get the fire to want to get back at it. This year it took about a week to get over, but a couple of days ago I told my wife (that) I know I’m ready because I’m already thinking about how we can get better.”
The only departing senior from Tennessee’s 2017-18 roster is reserve guard James Daniel III, though Barnes didn’t rule out the possibility that other players could opt to transfer. At this point, Tennessee has one available scholarship remaining.
“Our No. 1 priority would be to sign a guard, a point guard,” Barnes said. “A high school player would probably be our preference first. … That position is someone we want to come in here and make an immediate impact.”
Tennessee’s veteran roster could be facing an in-state rival that’s been missing from the Vols’ schedule the last few years.
Barnes said a series with Memphis is in the works. The Volunteers and Tigers are expected to meet in Memphis in 2018-19, followed by matchups in Knoxville in 2019-20 and Nashville in 2020-21.
“We would like to make it a big day of basketball in Nashville with not just us, but bringing in other teams within the state and make it a day to really promote basketball,” Barnes said. “That’s the reason we’re going there. … I would imagine if it goes the way we want, it won’t just be us playing that day when we go to Nashville. It would be like having some kind of jamboree or extravaganza that will really promote basketball in the state of Tennessee.”
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