Rick Barnes, Tennessee’s history of NCAA Tournament upsets continues with Sweet 16 loss to FAU


For the fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament, Rick Barnes and Tennessee have exited March Madness without making it past the Sweet 16.

The Vols’ latest loss came at the hands of 9 seed Florida Atlantic, to the tune of a 62-55 loss. Tennessee, which entered the 2023 NCAA Tournament as the top-rated defensive team in the country, couldn’t get its offense going in the defensive slugfest, shooting 33.3 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from beyond the arc while getting out-rebounded 40-36 by FAU.

In their victory, the Owls made history as the lowest-seeded Conference USA team ever to make the Elite Eight — a fact that is not likely to provide much comfort to Vols faithful as they spend another offseason wondering when that breakthrough under Barnes will finally arrive.

It’s a question Tennessee has been mulling over ever since Barnes arrived in 2015 from Texas, a team he had led to the Final Four in 2003 and the Elite Eight in 2006 and 2008. He had reached the Final Four once and the first of his Elite Eight berths by his eighth season in Austin: In Knoxville, he has made the Sweet 16 twice in five tournament berths in as many seasons.

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Moreover, four of Barnes and Tennessee’s five NCAA Tournament losses have come by teams ranked at least 5 seed lines below the Volunteers.

With that, The Sporting News looks at how Thursday’s loss to the Owls continues an unfortunate string of NCAA Tournament upsets against the Volunteers:

Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament upsets under Rick Barnes

The Volunteers have lost five straight NCAA Tournament games to lower seeded teams in the past six years under Barnes. (The 2020 tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though at 17-14 it’s possible the Volunteers would have missed out altogether).

Three of Tennessee’s losses came by teams with a double-digit seed, with only the Owls and Purdue breaking that particular sequence. Here’s a rundown of where Tennessee has fallen in each of its last five NCAA Tournament berths:

Tournament Seed Round reached Final result
2018 3 Second round 63-62 loss to 11-seed Loyola Chicago
2019 2 Sweet 16 99-94 OT loss to 3-seed Purdue
2021 5 First round 70-56 loss to 12-seed Oregon State
2022 3 Second round 76-68 loss to 11-seed Michigan
2023 4 Sweet 16 62-55 loss to 9-seed FAU

MORE: C-USA teams in Elite Eight: Florida Atlantic joins elite NCAA Tournament company

Getting to the big dance is certainly a big part of the equation. But Tennessee and its fans alike must feel frustration at Barnes’ inability to advance past the Sweet 16 — especially when four of its five losses in the tournament have come to relatively heavy underdogs.

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