KNOXVILLE — Tennessee didn’t win 20 games, lost 14 times and finished fifth in its own division this season.
Tennessee's Melvin Goins (2) is helped to his feet by teammate Tennessee's Jeronne Maymon (34) after being fouled on a three point shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011 in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee won 104-84. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Yet in the midst of all of that, the Volunteers still managed to make a frustrating season a bit of an historic one.
“It’s making history,” senior forward Steven Pearl said after UT received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, the Vols’ sixth consecutive trip to the Big Dance. “We’ve made history every year I’ve been here, so that’s awesome. Six years in a row, no team at Tennessee’s done that.”
UT (19-14, 8-8 Southeastern Conference) received a No. 9 seed in the West Region and will face No. 8 seed Michigan (20-13, 9-9 Big Ten) on Friday at Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena. The winner would advance to play either No. 16-seeded Hampton or top-seeded Duke on Sunday.
“These Selection Sundays are special,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “They’re still special for me. I told the guys, ‘This is my 17th trip in 19 or 20 years. It still gives me chills and brings me to an emotional feeling when they call your name. Don’t take this opportunity for granted.’ I think [it’s special] getting there six times in a row with six different casts of characters, six different kinds of teams, six different styles of play.”
The Vols, who went 9-9 against teams that made the tournament, have had forgettable times their last two trips to Charlotte. Louisville pounded UT in the Sweet 16 there in the 2008 tournament, and the Vols dropped an ugly game in December to a 10-win Charlotte team that didn’t even qualify for its own conference tournament. UT made a combined 34 percent of its shots in those two losses.
“It hasn’t been a great place for us,” Bruce Pearl said. “We intentionally started the Charlotte series to get into this building knowing it’s a [tournament] site. If we can defend Michigan anywhere near like we defended Charlotte, we have a chance. But we have not shot the ball in that building very well for two straight times.”
Said leading scorer Scotty Hopson: “It’s an opportunity to bounce back since we didn’t play good [there]. The gym is the gym, and we’re going to come out and try to make shots and try to put the ball in the hole.”
Michigan went 7-8 against tournaments teams, including a home win over an Oakland team that beat UT in Knoxville. Guards Darius Morris (15.2) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (13.9) lead coach John Beilein’s offense, which makes eight 3-pointers per game. The Wolverines mix in a 1-3-1 zone with man-to-man defenses and hold teams to less than 43 percent shooting.
“John is a brilliant tactician,” Bruce Pearl said. “If there’s such a thing as a man’s man, he’s a coach’s coach. He is a guy that everybody recognizes can outcoach you with his and with yours. It won’t take him very long to figure out what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are and how to go about playing us.
“One of the things about being here at Tennessee is we’ve got the satellite dishes running. I’ll probably have about a dozen tapes on Michigan upstairs when we get done here.”
UT lost as a No. 9 seed to Oklahoma State by two in the first round of the 2009 tournament, and reaching the tournament’s second weekend is certainly a tall order with a potential second-round game against Duke in the Blue Devils’ own backyard looming. But the Vols also weren’t expected to last long entering last year’s tournament and came within a possession of the Final Four.
“We’re not a team that overwhelms people either with our style or our personnel, but we’re definitely capable,” Bruce Pearl said. “I think our experience is there. How this team finishes is going to matter to everybody, but it’ll certainly matter more to the seniors than anybody.”
Steven Pearl and Brian Williams are two of those seniors and the only Vols who were on the team that Louisville ousted in Charlotte three seasons ago.
“We came into the tournament where everybody expected to lose, so we had a chip on our shoulder,” Williams said. “I don’t think many people think we’re going to do anything in this tournament, so I think it’s the same motivation this year, and it’s to keep winning. Nobody wants to go home or one-and-done.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...