Vols aren't rolling

With Tennessee coming off an ugly 85-74 SEC Tournament loss to Florida, many fans give the Big Orange no chance to make a splash in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. How quickly they forget ...

One year ago the Vols were coming off an even uglier 74-45 SEC Tournament loss to Kentucky and given no chance to make a splash in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. All they did was advance within one basket of the Final Four.

Bottom line: Everybody gets a fresh start in The Dance, and what you did previously means next to nothing. So, one can't assume that ninth-seeded Tennessee, a loser in seven of its last 11 games, is doomed in Friday's NCAA West Region opener against an eighth-seeded Michigan team that has won nine of its last 13. The NCAA Tournament rarely follows the form sheet.

"It's 68 teams. It's a brand new season," said Vol senior Brian Williams, who started at center during the Vols' run to the Elite Eight last March. "In my opinion everybody has a 0-0 record. It just depends on what color jersey you're wearing."

Junior Scotty Hopson, who started at guard for last year's Elite Eight team, says that Vol squad shifted into a higher gear when March Madness began. He thinks this year's team will do the same.

"This team is resilient. We bounce back," he said. "We know how to play good basketball when the time comes. Right now we need to play our best basketball. It is March, and we've got to get to doing that."

Asked if he sees any similarities between this year's team and last year's Elite Eight squad, Hopson nodded.

"Just the fact this can be a tough team - a good rebounding team and a good defensive team," he said. "That's one of the things we did last year down the stretch. We started playing good defense and started playing together. I think this team is going to do that."

Asked how the 2010 Vols won their way to the Elite Eight on the heels of a 29-point loss to Kentucky, head coach Bruce Pearl suggested the lopsided loss to the Big Blue was deceiving.

"I thought we played pretty well against Ole Miss the day before and for about the first 30 minutes against Kentucky," the coach recalled. "Then, with us playing our third game in three days, they (Wildcats) took over. Kentucky had played poorly in their first game, then they were kind of getting warmed up in the second half and just ran us out."

Although Pearl says his team is "capable" of making a deep run in The Tournament, he understands why many observers are discounting the Vols. They've suffered a lot of mis-steps en route to a 19-14 record.

"We're not going in with a lot of momentum," the coach said. "We haven't put a lot of wins together here down the stretch. It's been a struggle but we'll just take 'em one at a time.

"If I have to struggle my way into the NCAA Tournament every year, so be it."


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