To have a chance to advance to the Elite Eight and, possibly, the Final Four is exactly why the former Mount Paran Christian standout committed to the Volunteers. Moore said he believed in the vision coach Cuonzo Martin had while he was being recruited.
But what has Moore a little surprised is the opportunity he’s getting as a sophomore.
“I knew it would be a great place to be,” the 6-foot-5, 215-pound guard said. “I just never knew it would come so quickly.”
It’s come quickly for both Tennessee and Moore.
After trips to the National Invitation Tournament each of the last two seasons, the Vols (24-12) made the jump back into the NCAA tournament this year, narrowly as a No. 11 seed.
And now, after three wins — 78-65 in overtime over Iowa in a First Four game and then 86-67 over Massachusetts and a 83-63 rout of Mercer — a win tonight over second-seeded Michigan (27-8) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis is all that separates Tennessee from having an opportunity to play for the program’s first trip to the Final Four.
“I feel like we are playing with a lot of confidence right now,” said Moore, a key reserve averaging 3.0 points, 2.1 rebounds and 12.7 minutes in 32 games this season. “I think we can play with anybody in the country.”
The way the Vols are playing now, Moore is right.
Tennessee has won eight of its last nine games, and it has done it in convincing fashion. During a run at the end of the season that helped them gain an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, the Vols beat Vanderbilt by 38 points, Auburn by 28 and Missouri by 27. The only loss during the stretch was a 56-49 setback to No. 1 Florida at the Georgia Dome, in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
That success wasn’t always the case for Tennessee.
Despite owning wins over Xavier and Atlantic Coast Conference champion Virginia, along with close losses to Wichita State, Kentucky and Florida (twice), the Vols needed a strong end to the season just to sneak into the tournament. Then, they were forced to play in the opening round.
“It was a great accomplishment throughout the season to get to this point,” Moore said. “But then we had to play in that opening round. At first, we looked at it like we had to play in a play-in game. But it let us settle down and get used to the tournament.”
Moore played a key role in the Vols’ win over Iowa, scoring four points and adding three assists and a pair of rebounds off the bench. He also added four points, a rebound and an assist in 18 minutes against UMass.
Both of those games are considered standard for Moore. After a freshman year in which he was forced into the starting lineup and asked play as many as three positions, Moore has returned to his role as a shooting guard, and he said he’s a much better player because of it.
“I wasn’t accustomed to the plays,” Moore said of last season, where he saw action at point guard and small forward in addition to his regular role as shooting guard. “Sometimes, I would be playing a little bit out of control and I would turn the ball over. Now, I’m making better decisions. I’m learning how to knock down the open jump shot. I’ve improved a lot and gained a lot of confidence.”
After Tennessee’s win over Mercer put the Vols into the Sweet 16, Moore said he had a phone full of calls and text messages from family and friends.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” he said. “I don’t know how many calls I had, but I had more than 200 text messages.”
A victory tonight against Michigan would put the Vols into the Elite Eight with a matchup against either SEC rival Kentucky or defending national champion Louisville.
It would also probably fill up Moore’s phone again.
“A month ago, it was shaky we were going to get in the tournament,” Moore said. “Now, we’re doing something special. It’s been pretty crazy.”