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    After overcoming Texas on Jan. 28, Tennessee was 18-3 and looking like a serious contender to win the SEC. But then the Volunteers went 4-6 to close out the regular season and finished the campaign tied for fourth in the conference.

    You can’t count this team out just yet, though. Even during the difficult end of the season, Tennessee managed to topple the mighty Crimson Tide and the tournament-caliber teams of Arkansas and Auburn. Otherwise, the Vols picked up Ws against Kansas, Maryland, USC, and the aforementioned Longhorns this season. They’ve shown they can beat the best, but Tennessee will have to do that a few times more to win the national championship.

    Last National Championship: None

    Last Final Four: None

    2023 Title Odds: +3000 (as of March 8, 2023)

    Why Tennessee Will Make a Run

    The Vols are No. 1 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom and T-Rank, a testament to how ridiculously strong they are on that side of the ball. They allow the third-fewest points per game in Division I (57.5) and rank atop all of college basketball in opponent field-goal percentage (36.4 percent) and three-point percentage (25.5 percent). Scoring on this team is an incredibly tall task, even for the most potent offenses in America – just ask Alabama. An opposing team has cracked 70 points against Tennessee only five times this season, and the Volunteers have won every contest in which they held the bad guys below 60.

    AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

    This is also a very deep team. Rick Barnes has a 10-man rotation with intimidating defenders throughout the whole group. Seven members of the rotation have defensive ratings below 90, which is simply insane. Additionally, Tennessee is one of the best offensive-rebounding teams in the nation. Its 13.3 offensive boards per contest is top 10 in college basketball and a huge avenue for the Vols to pick up easy points.

    Why Tennessee Will Exit Early

    Zakai Zeigler’s injury seriously hurts, literally and figuratively.

    The guard tore his ACL in Tennessee’s Feb. 28 win over Arkansas and will miss the remainder of this season. Zeigler is this team’s second-leading scorer, top assister, and good for 2.0 steals per game, too. His absence is massive. This is an offense that has toiled at times, and it’ll now be without its primary ball handler and one of its main scoring options.

    Josiah-Jordan James stepped into the starting role in Zeigler’s stead in Tennessee’s final regular season contest against Auburn, which the Vols lost, 79-70, and did okay. But is okay enough to win it all? The offense has been the issue for this team all season long, and now it has a huge hole to fill. Tennessee has to figure out a satisfactory solution immediately.

    What It’ll Take to Win

    When Tennessee keeps its opponent below 60 points, it wins every time (19-0). When the Vols allow their competition to break the 60-point mark, things don’t go as well – they’re just 3-9 in those 12 outings. With an offense that isn’t the greatest, especially now having to operate without Zeigler, it is a requirement that Tennessee plays to its strength and flexes its defensive muscles all tournament long to have a shot at winning the national championship.

    None of Tennessee’s scorers are particularly efficient, which has been a problem all year. Now without Zeigler, that’s another piece that cannot be relied upon to put points on the board. The Vols will have to keep their opponents below 60, or at least not far above that number, but they also need someone to step up and take on a larger scoring role. Maybe that player is James, or maybe Santiago Vescovi is ready to assume a bigger burden. Whomever it is, someone has to do it because Tennessee won’t win the national championship by struggling to break 70 every game.


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