Tennessee’s season was so consistently inconsistent that many thought an 8-9 game in the NCAA tournament was the most appropriate place to slot the Volunteers.
The Vols gathered in Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday and learned they'll open the NCAA tournament against Michigan.
Apparently the selection committee concurred.
UT (19-14, 8-8 SEC) was given a No. 9 seed in the West Region and will play No. 8 seed Michigan (20-13, 9-9 Big Ten) at 12:40 p.m. on Friday in Charlotte.
The winner will almost surely meet top-seeded Duke in the second round.
“Obviously, that’s something everybody’s going to talk about, but we don’t even play Duke if we don’t beat Michigan,” senior forward Steven Pearl said. “It’s all about Michigan right now. That’s all that matters.”
Vols coach Bruce Pearl and his players sat on couches in Thompson-Boling Arena’s Ray Mears room and celebrated when their name came on the screen during CBS’s annual selection show. Such a scene has become commonplace during Pearl’s tenure, which has ended in the NCAA tournament all six seasons.
“These selection Sundays are special. They’re special, and they’re still special for me,” Bruce Pearl said. “I told the guys, ‘This is my 17th trip in I believe 19 or 20 years or whatever is, and it still brings me to an emotional feeling when they call your name. Don’t take this opportunity for granted.’
“I think getting there six different times in a row, with six different casts of characters, six different kinds of teams, six different styles of play, that’s special.”
UT and Michigan have played nine times — none since 1985, though — and the Vols have a 5-4 series lead. UT has a No. 36 RPI ranking thanks mostly to playing the nation’s second-toughest schedule, and the Wolverines have a No. 56 RPI after playing the nation’s No. 18 schedule.
Tennessee senior center Brian Williams on Michigan: “I know the Fab Five played there, and they wear yellow. That’s about it."
Putting it mildly, the Vols knew very little about Michigan.
“I know the Fab Five played there, and they wear yellow. That’s about it,” senior center Brian Williams said.
Some players knew a little bit more. But not much.
Many Vols know of and claim serious respect for Michigan coach John Beilein — whose disciplined system previously produced winning environments at Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia.
“I do know John,” Bruce Pearl said. “John is a brilliant tactician. 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 out-coach you with his and with yours.
“I haven’t seen Michigan play this year, but I’ll be upstairs seeing them play a lot this week, and I would imagine we’re going to see some 1-3-1 (zone defense), which he’s historically known for. We’ll also see a smart man-to-man where he’ll look at everything we do. It won’t take him very long to figure out what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are and how to go about defending us.”
The Vols were still disappointed about their SEC tournament quarterfinal loss to Florida on Friday night in the Georgia Dome, but NCAA tournament bids almost always boost spirits. This season was no different.
“I came to Tennessee to play on big stages like this,” said junior guard Scotty Hopson, the Vols’ leading scorer. “Now we just need to go practice and get focused and get ready to play our best basketball.”
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