KNOXVILLE — It took no more than one weekend for the East Region of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to prove what many started suggesting on Selection Sunday.
It’s tough. Really tough. Possibly the toughest in the tournament, and definitely the most top-heavy.
Tennessee sits in the middle of a minefield this week. To make the program’s first Final Four, the Volunteers will have to navigate through two of the tournament’s most impressive opening-weekend teams in Louisville and either North Carolina or Washington State.
A lackluster opening performance, an unfair second-round matchup and general chaos at the point guard position forced the Vols to a tighter-than-expected win over American University and an overtime thriller against underrated Butler this past weekend in Birmingham.
Meanwhile, No. 1 seed North Carolina, No. 3 seed Louisville and No. 4 seed Washington State didn’t break a sweat, ensuring the East’s beastly road to the Final Four.
The Vols must play Louisville in a Thursday game that will start about 9:45 p.m. or later. Rick Pitino’s Cardinals (26-8) beat No. 14 seed Boise State and No. 6 seed Oklahoma by a combined 48 points last weekend, routing the Sooners 78-48 on Sunday.
A Louisville fan pointed courtside to UT coach Bruce Pearl in the first half — the Cardinals led 44-22 at halftime — and said, “We’re coming for you next!”
Pearl smiled at the fan and said, “I can see that! Your guys look tough!”
Tennessee’s third-year coach was especially complimentary of the Cardinals on Monday, calling them “like Memphis, the most talented team we play.”
“Louisville has been thought to be a Final Four-caliber team,” Pearl said. “This region looks like a Final Four field.”
That respect goes both ways, though. Many of Louisville’s players had the same stunned Selection Sunday looks when they saw the East bracket. North Carolina was named the tournament’s top overall seed, and many analysts said the Vols and Cardinals were also the best 2 and 3 seeds.
“I think that we have the best trio all-around in the NCAA,” Louisville point guard Edgar Sosa said Sunday. “These are three teams that could potentially go all the way. I don’t think any other region has that trio power. It feels good to play in the strongest region.”
In his next breath, though, Sosa said he was “kind of jealous” of some high seeds in other regions, specifically West No. 1 seed UCLA.
“In other regions, you may have it like UCLA,” Sosa said. “If they come out and play their game right, they could have easy games the rest of the way. From now on, every game we play is going to be hard.
“If we get past Tennessee, we probably have to play Carolina. It’s just hard.”
Senior center David Padgett — the 6-foot-11 centerpiece of Louisville’s mammoth frontcourt — said he didn’t want to talk about North Carolina. Before Sunday afternoon, he didn’t mention Tennessee, either. He called the East region “so tough that you can’t look past anybody, or you’ll slip up and end your season.”
“They’re obviously a very good basketball team,” Padgett said of the Vols. “To be honest, though, we really haven’t talked about them. We really go one game at a time. I know they had a close game with Butler, but they’re an extremely good team, too.
“You don’t stay in the top 10 all season long if you’re not a good basketball team.”
The Cardinals have won 11 of their 13 games since a Jan. 28 loss at Connecticut, and the two losses were 55-52 at Georgetown and 76-69 in overtime to Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament. They’ve beaten both of those teams in this current streak, too.
Pitino said his team did a “beautiful job” in Birmingham.
“You really can’t find a weakness in the way the guys played,” he said.
Most teams don’t stray too far from the norm this time of the season, so Louisville will almost certainly apply some full-court pressure on the Vols before dropping back in a nasty zone defense full of long athletes.
“I think we’ve been playing well since early in February, maybe even January after that UConn loss,” Padgett said. “We’re really focused right now, which is the most important thing. Guys are really paying attention to what they need to do to buckle down on defense, and it’s helping us.”
Whoever survives the Tennessee-Louisville game must play either the nation’s No. 1 team or one of the nation’s best defenses. Washington State’s Cougars (26-8) surrendered just a combined 81 points to Winthrop and Notre Dame in the first two rounds.
North Carolina (34-2), meanwhile, scored 221 points against Mount St. Mary’s and Arkansas.
“Whoever comes out of this region is earning it big-time,” UT sophomore forward Duke Crews said. “And we wouldn’t have it any other way.”