March 14, 2010
BY JOSH PATE
When the CBS cameras flipped on to show a shot of the Tennessee basketball team awaiting its destiny in the NCAA tournament, the guys were relaxed on the couch with donors and media flanking behind. The bracket was revealed: Tennessee is a No. 6 seed and will face 11th-seed San Diego State on Thursday in Providence, R.I.
The reaction was mixed. The team was thankful for the nod, the fifth consecutive for the program that elevates it to a level rarely seen in Knoxville and even the Southeastern Conference; Tennessee is the only SEC team to return to the 65-team field from last year. And at the same time, with a body of work that includes victories over No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Kentucky, as well as a top-20 ranking, the snub from a higher seed that many thought UT would receive wasn't taken lightly.
Consider it motivation.
"We're going to get questions about why we didn't get a 4 seed or a 5 seed," UT head coach Bruce Pearl said. "That's just what happens."
Pearl said it's natural to be disappointed. But the game-face mentality - a few claps by the team when the bracket was posted - is also part of what Pearl has been trying to build for this program.
"It's just expectations," Pearl said. "It's been there, done that. And it's not about Tennessee, I can promise you. Nine years at Southern Indiana, and every year this party got smaller and smaller. Even at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, when we made it for the second time and got all the way to the Sweet 16, that second pairings party wasn't anything like the first one. That's just the way it is."
Still, the analysis of the first-round matchup between the Vols and the Aztecs, who boast identical 25-8 records (and even 11-5 conference records), one television comment was the spark that may grow to a fire by Thursday afternoon in Rhode Island.
CBS commentator Seth Davis predicted San Diego State would upset Tennessee in the first round. That stung for the Vols.
"I feel a little insulted about what the commentator said as far as picking us to be the upset loss," said UT senior Bobby Maze. "I'm more upset about that than the seeding we got. I feel like we've worked hard. We beat the No. 1 and No. 2 teams already so I feel like we've proven ourselves as far as we can play with the best of them if we stick to our game plan."
Junior post player Brian Williams kept it in a positive light.
"With our resume and what we've proven this year, I think we were disrespected but we're just grateful to be in the tournament," Williams said. "Not many teams get that opportunity. Since I've been here, we've been doubted and disrespected so it's nothing new to me. It just makes us hungrier as a team and more focused on knowing what we've got to do to get to the next round."
Challenges are nothing new to the Vols. They lost the services of Emmanuel Negedu to a heart condition before the season. They lost star player Tyler Smith when he was dismissed from the team due to a violation of team rules, and three other players were suspended for multiple games.
"I was talking with these guys last night, some of the coaching staff, and to say how proud I am of this team and what they've accomplished in the last few months would be an understatement," UT athletic director Mike Hamilton said. "You go back and the adversity they have gone through and what they've learned from that, how they've taken care of their business and how they've performed, to win 25 games this year so far has been phenomenal. These young men have carried themselves in the right way."
So the challenges keep coming. Step One begins Thursday in Providence.
"The way you look at it is it's a six-game tournament," Pearl said. "We've got a two-game tournament in Providence, R.I., against Ohio, Georgetown and San Diego State. One of those four teams, along with Tennessee, is going to be in the Sweet 16. That's how our team will prepare. That's how our coaches will prepare. We're on the road to the Final Four. That's a fact."