For three months, the Volunteers have lived off their 7-0 start that included wins over Villanova and Pitt.
Now, after going 12-14 over their last 26 games and redefining the word inconsistent, Tennessee has one last chance to prove it was worthy of a bid to the NCAA Tournament when it meets Michigan Friday in a second round game at Time Warner Arena in Charlotte.
As the West Regional's ninth seed, the Volunteers are a potentially dangerous out -- if they play up to their physical capability. They will certainly have a physical edge on coach John Beilein's Wolverines and should be able to control the glass.
Question is, can UT make good decisions and play with a 40-minute focus which has eluded it on a nightly basis since it left Pittsburgh Dec. 11 with a resounding win over the Panthers and moved into the top 10?
If the Southeastern Conference Tournament was any precursor, the answer is no. Even in their 74-68 first round win over Arkansas March 10, the Vols blew a 16-point second half lead and had to score the last six points to survive.
Then they took a 34-29 lead into halftime against Florida March 11 but couldn't stop the SEC regular season champions in the second half, allowing 56 points in an 85-74 setback.
For UT to make any kind of meaningful NCAA run, it will probably need someone else to score points besides Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris. Whether it's Melvin Goins, sixth man Brian Williams or the slumping Cameron Tatum, someone has to help.
Otherwise, the Vols might not see an expected third round matchup with Duke, leaving everyone concerned with the program to deal with what figures to be a turbulent postseason as the NCAA sinks its teeth into the allegations against coach Bruce Pearl.
--The Volunteers are making their sixth straight NCAA appearance, coinciding with coach Bruce Pearl's arrival at the school in 2005. Last year's run to the Midwest Region finals, culminating in a 70-69 loss to Michigan State, was the school's first Elite Eight game.
--Tennessee is 8-5 in the tournament under Pearl, winning four of its five openers. The only time it didn't win its first game in the tourney was in 2009, when it dropped a 77-75 decision to Oklahoma State. This will be its third straight NCAA game against a Big Ten Conference team.
COACH: Bruce Pearl, six years at Tennessee, sixth postseason appearance
KEYS TO VICTORY: So much rides on the 1-2 punch of junior G Scotty Hopson and freshman F Tobias Harris, who combine for nearly 46 percent of the Vols' scoring. Hopson has slumped lately but is averaging a career-high 17.4 points, while Harris has been very consistent for a freshman, scoring 15.2 ppg and tallying 49 points in two SEC tournament games. But this team's success has been predicated on a defense which has limited opponents to 67.3 points and 41.5 percent field goal shooting. Tennessee's depth allows it to keep fresh players in the game, enhancing its ability to play shutdown defense. But for this team to enjoy any kind of postseason success, someone else has to help out Hopson and Harris in the scoring department.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I believe if your team makes the NCAA Tournament, regardless of the ups and downs, that team should be celebrated." -- Pearl in the Knoxville News-Sentinel after learning of the Vols' No. 9 seed in the West Region despite a 19-14 record.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
vs. Michigan, March 18, NCAA Tournament second round
KEY MATCHUPS: Perimeter defense will be huge for the Volunteers as the Wolverines -- like most John Beilein-coached sides -- shoot a lot of 3-pointers and play a lot of three-guard lineups. Five Michigan players hit between 36 and 38 percent on 3s, with freshman Tim Hardaway, Jr. sinking a team-high 74. Offensively, Tennessee's backcourt will have to be strong with the ball after the Wolverines score because they'll unleash their 1-3-1 halfcourt trap.
SCOUTING REPORT: The Volunteers have evolved from a team which ran and pressed in coach Bruce Pearl's first five years to a squad which plays conventional halfcourt sets, using their physical strength to gain advantages on both ends of the floor. They are led offensively by G Scotty Hopson, who averaged a career-high 17.4 points despite a late-season slump, and F Tobias Harris, who's played with remarkable consistency for a freshman, averaging 15.2 ppg. They haven't had much on offense besides that duo as junior G Cameron Tatum is in a deep slump, his scoring average having sunk to 8.9 ppg as he's lost his spot in the lineup. Despite Pearl's pledge to cut the rotation back at various times during the season, he's stuck with an 11-man rotation, sometimes to the detriment of the team's offense.
--Freshman F Tobias Harris (thigh) sat out practice March 13 to receive treatment on his injury, suffered in the SEC tournament. It didn't seem to affect his play as he scored 24 points against Arkansas, then lit up Florida for 25. Harris is expected to be ready for Michigan. He was named to the All-SEC Second Team, as well as the league's All-Freshman Team.
--Senior C Brian Williams (eye/back) took a beating at the SEC tourney, enduring a hard fall on a balky back and getting scratched in his eye during a first round matchup with Arkansas. Williams, who won the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year last week, could have a tough defensive matchup with Michigan as it shoots a lot of 3s and tries to draw big men to the perimeter. By contrast, he should have a physical edge inside when it comes to rebounding and scoring the ball.
--Junior G Scotty Hopson was a first team All-SEC pick but didn't play like it at the conference tournament, scoring just eight points against Arkansas and mixing in seven turnovers while he tallied 19 points in the loss to Florida. Despite struggling over the last three games, Hopson has enjoyed his best season, leading the team with 17.4 points and playing the most assertive basketball of his career. He must play at his best for this squad to make any kind of NCAA run.