KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A sixth straight NCAA tournament bid would mean as much to Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl as the run the Volunteers made last season to the regional finals.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl yells to his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri State in Knoxville. Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive has suspended Pearl for the Volunteers' first eight conference games as punishment for violating NCAA rules and misleading investigators. (AP File Photo/Wade Payne, File)
The problem is, the Vols may not have done enough recently to convince the NCAA selection committee they deserve a spot in the tournament this season.
"I know if we continue to win we help ourselves, and if we don't you put yourself in a position where you leave it to chance, and you just don't want to leave it to chance," Pearl said.
Tennessee's trip to the NCAA regional finals last season was the first in program history, and a sixth consecutive trip to the big dance would also be a first. Coach Don DeVoe led Tennessee to the tournament five years in a row from 1979-83.
"For me, going to the tournament six years in a row would probably mean as much to me as our first Elite Eight appearance a year ago," Pearl said. "That's winning three games. Going to the NCAA tournament — if we can — six years in a row to me speaks about our program and the consistency."
The problem is, Tennessee has been anything but consistent this season, a year overshadowed by an NCAA investigation and charges of unethical conduct and failure to monitor against Pearl.
Tennessee is 36th in RPI and has played one of toughest schedules in the nation, getting wins against Pittsburgh, Villanova, Vanderbilt, Georgia and NCAA tournament-bound Belmont.
Tennessee's Steven Pearl (22) and Cameron Tatum (23) celebrate after a basket in the second half of the NCAA college basketball game against Pittsburgh in the SEC-Big East Invitational in Pittsburgh on Saturday. Tennessee won 83-76. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
But the Vols (18-13, 8-8 Southeastern Conference) have a few bad losses mixed in and have dropped six of their last nine, including Sunday's 64-58 loss at home to No. 15 Kentucky. That loss dropped Tennessee from second in the SEC East to fifth with a conference tournament first-round meeting with Arkansas scheduled for Thursday night.
Analysts at Sports Illustrated, ESPN and CBS have projected the Vols as high as a six seed in the NCAA tournament and as low as a 10 seed. Pearl isn't entirely comfortable with those, knowing the outcome of conference tournaments could change things significantly.
"We've got some good things to point to, but I would have liked to have done a little more, put ourselves in better position," Pearl said.
A run through the SEC tournament could help, though the Vols' road is much tougher without a first-round bye. Only three teams in the past decade have advanced from the first round of the tournament to the finals, and only one — Georgia in a tournament interrupted by a tornado in 2008 — won the championship.
In this file photo Arkansas forward Michael Sanchez (31) and Tennessee forward John Fields (25) battle for control of a loose ball as Arkansas forward Delvon Johnson (21) looks on during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Beth Hall)
The Razorbacks (18-12, 7-9) won the teams' regular-season meeting 68-65, though Pearl had just begun an eight-game suspension for lying to NCAA investigators at the time.
If the Vols can advance to the quarterfinals, they'll be tasked with beating No. 12 Florida, the best team in the conference and one that swept Tennessee this season.
The good news for the Vols is that senior center Brian Williams is expected to return. Williams, who was given the SEC's sixth man award by league coaches on Tuesday, was bothered by a sore back and back spasms but practiced Monday for the first time since a 70-69 loss to Mississippi State on Feb. 26.
"I think we understand what's at stake," junior guard Cameron Tatum said. "We've got a lot of guys on here from last year's team. We had a meeting the other day talking about it like, 'Guys this is go time. It's either win or go home.' The SEC tournament on into the NCAA tournament is no laughing matter, it's no games, none of that. We've just got to go in with an extreme amount of focus."