In the first two rounds, Tennessee struggled to get past No. 15-seed American, pulling away late for a 71-57 win against an over-matched and out-classed 15-seed. Then in the second round, Butler, the 7-seed, overcame a sizable first half deficit to force overtime before bowing out 76-71.
him of a 'better shooting Memphis.'
But while Tennessee was able to get by in Birmingham with superior talent and depth, that won't be the case against a deep and talented squad from Louisville – a team that sped by Boise State and Oklahoma by an average of 24 points in the first two rounds.
"This is completely different because we're going to be faced with a different kind of size and athleticism," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "Louisville was a team many people picked to be a Final Four team."
Louisville has one of the best front courts left in the 16-team NCAA Tournament field, led by David Padgett and Earl Clark. Tennessee, a team making its second straight Sweet 16 appearance, will likely counter with a three-guard, perimeter-packed lineup.
That difference is why Pearl will spend a lot of time this week pondering the various matchups that will determine which team will advance to Saturday's East Regional finals against either North Carolina or Washington State.
Can the Vols 6-9 Wayne Chism slow-down the taller 6-11 Padgett? Can 6-7 Tyler Smith deal with Clark's length and athleticism around the basket? Can 6-7 reserve Duke Crews keep pace with 6-9, 265-pound Derrick Caracter in the post? And will Chris Lofton, who is wearing a protective boot this week because of an ankle injury, be physically up to the challenge of chasing Jerry Smith around the perimeter?
"It's a game of great matchups," Pearl said.
Pearl said he'll use 6-2 JaJuan Smith on Louisville point guards Andre McGee and Edgar Sosa. That likely means either 6-6 J.P. Prince or 6-2 Ramar Smith will be charged with guarding 6-6 Terrence Williams. But Pearl's biggest concern will be trying to figure a way to slow Louisville's strong inside-out attack.
"Louisville does a great job running their offense through their post," Pearl said. "I'm so impressed with Padgett on the inside and Jerry Smith on the perimeter – that inside-outside combination – and the athletes they put around those two.
"There's like four or five big time pros on that team. It's a very talented team with athletic, skilled front line guys. They're a better shooting Memphis team with better post-up options."
Pearl knows a thing or two about Memphis –that's certain. The Volunteers are the only team to beat the No. 1-seeded Tigers this season. Pearl also knows that a now healthy Louisville will present at least as many challenges – if not more – than did Memphis.
"Louisville will be, like Memphis, the most talented team we play," Pearl said. "Frontline depth. Backcourt depth. They will press us, which doesn't happen often and they will mix in some zone. Louisville has been thought to be a Final Four caliber team."
While his own team didn't play its best basketball in Birmingham, Louisville was firing on all cylinders at both ends of the court. In a 79-61 win over Boise State, Louisville made 12 three-pointers and held the high-scoring Broncos 20 points below their seasons-average. Against Oklahoma in the second round, Louisville blitzed the Sooners with offensive precision while holding them to just 31 percent shooting in a 78-48 victory.
"Certainly in Birmingham, (Louisville) can say they put a couple of games together offensively and defensively. They have to feel good about they're playing," Pearl said. "We didn't play our best basketball in Birmingham. We played really well Sunday but we have to play better to advance."
With just 16 teams remaining, much is at stake for both Louisville and Tennessee Thursday night. For Tennessee, which is 0-4 in regional semifinal matchups, the Volunteers are looking for their first trip to the regional final. For Louisville, which advanced to the 2005 Final Four, the Cardinals are hoping for a second trip to the national semifinals in the past four years.
But it won't be an easy chore for either team to reach to the Final Four. The East Regional semifinal field possesses the look and feel of a Final Four-type field. All four top seeds advanced to Thursday's semifinal games – the only region that held true.
There's No. 1 North Carolina, the top seed overall in the tournament; there's No. 2 Tennessee, the SEC regular-season champions and the only team to beat Memphis this season; there's No. 3 Louisville, perhaps the hottest team in the country since the beginning of February; and No. 4 Washington State, one of the top defensive teams in the nation, rounds out the field.
"It's a very, very formidable field," Pearl said.
Who will emerge from this talented group in Charlotte and punch their ticket to San Antonio for the Final Four?
We'll have a better idea after Tennessee and Louisville's clash Thursday night.