The Volunteers stumbled through the first half, played its best down the stretch and gained plenty of respect by the time it was over. The Volunteers erased nearly all of a 15-point, second-half deficit Friday before falling 73-71 to Michigan, capping a remarkable run from the NCAA tournament bubble to the Midwest Regional semifinals.
"I thought we did a great job of battling back," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said Saturday after his team returned to campus. "That's what we do. When we get down, we'll fight back."
The Vols (24-13) now must attempt to replace the nucleus of a team that earned Tennessee its first NCAA tournament appearance in three years. The first of many questions is whether Jarnell Stokes will be back to help the rebuilding process.
Stokes, who emerged as one of the premier players in this year's NCAA tournament, hasn't decided whether to enter the NBA draft or return for his senior season. If the 6-foot-8 forward leaves, Tennessee would have to replace four of its top five scorers.
"I really don't know," Stokes said after Friday's game. "I honestly haven't thought about it," Stokes said. "I see a lot of guys right after the game declare for the draft. I'm like, 'Man, are you even focused on the season?'"
Stokes sparked a late surge that dramatically altered Tennessee's fortunes.
In late February, Tennessee was 16-11 overall, 7-7 in Southeastern Conference play and in danger of a third straight NIT appearance. Fans disgruntled with Martin had started an online petition to bring back former coach Bruce Pearl, who has since been hired at Auburn.
But Tennessee continued its habit of strong finishes under Martin, who now heads into the offseason with bargaining power. Martin currently makes $1.35 million a year, which ranks him in the bottom half of SEC coaches. He earned a $75,000 bonus for getting Tennessee to a regional semifinal.
"Even with the bumps in the road, we got better throughout the season," Martin said. "Our guys played extremely well down the stretch. Our last two losses were to (Florida and Michigan). Both teams won their conference. One won the SEC, one won the Big Ten, and the Big Ten's supposed to be the best conference in America. So our guys have nothing to be ashamed about. They did a tremendous job. They just came up short."
Martin could face a tougher challenge getting Tennessee back to the NCAA tournament next year.
The Vols must replace guard Jordan McRae, who ended his college career Friday after leading Tennessee in scoring each of the last two years. Forward Jeronne Maymon and guard Antonio Barton also have completed their eligibility.
During its late-season push, Tennessee thrived on the physical superiority it had over most opponents with the combination of Maymon and Stokes, both listed at 6-8 and 260 pounds. If Stokes leaves, the Vols could have serious issues in the frontcourt.
Tennessee will need to rely on continued development from guard Josh Richardson, who averaged 19.3 points in four NCAA tournament games. The Vols should benefit from the return of Robert Hubbs III, a former top-25 recruit who missed most of his freshman season with an injured left shoulder that required surgery. Tennessee also will need bigger contributions from the likes of Armani Moore, Derek Reese and Darius Thompson.
The loss of so much talent and experience could lead to some early struggles next year. But a little adversity doesn't have to wreck a season. The Vols learned that lesson this year.
"I think once you get a taste of being in the NCAA tournament, it takes you to another level," Martin said. "Your confidence grows as a team and as a program."