Vols see positive signs

He was part of a 2007-08 Tennessee team that won a program-record 31 games before losing to Louisville in the NCAA Sweet 16.

He was part of a 2008-09 Tennessee team that finished 21-13 after a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Oklahoma State.

He was part of a 2009-10 Tennessee team that reached the Elite Eight for the first time in program history and came within one basket of making the Final Four.

All of the above qualifies senior center Brian Williams as Tennessee's resident expert on March Madness. And, in case you're wondering, he thinks the 2010-11 Vols have a chance to make a nice run this time.

For one thing, he believes this team will benefit from having endured a tougher conditioning regimen than its predecessors.

"I think we practiced harder this year than we ever have before and we lifted more weights," he said.

For another thing, he believes this team will benefit from having faced a tougher schedule than its predecessors. Road wins vs. Virginia Commonwealth, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt and Georgia toughened the Vols, he believes.

"It built up confidence, especially with a lot of freshmen that played," he said. "They wasn't used to seeing what the road has in store for us, and I think we handled it well. I just hope we can handle it again right now."

Finally, Williams believes this team will benefit from its season-long reliance on defense and rebounding.

"The preparation can't change going to the NCAA Tournament," he said. "You've got to continue doing what you've been doing. The reasons we've been losing is stuff we can still fix. We just hope we can fix it on Friday."

Friday, of course, is when the ninth-seeded Vols (19-14) begin 2011 NCAA Tournament play by facing eighth-seeded Michigan (20-13) at 12:40 in the West Region opener at Charlotte. A win virtually guarantees a shot at top-seeded Duke (30-4) on Sunday.

"Obviously, it's going to be a tough road," junior wing Scotty Hopson said. "We're in the West Region, and we've got some tough games ahead of us that guys are excited about. We're going to prepare well and we're going to come out and get a victory."

When asked how he would compare this squad to the previous two NCAA Tournament teams he represented, Hopson deftly ducked the question.

"We're a new team, and it's hard to look back on other teams," he said. "But I'm a veteran and I did play on that Elite Eight team, so there's some things I can take from that team and that leadership we had and try to add it to this team.

"I'll try to give the guys a sense of what to expect, what time it is, what we're up against."

What the Vols are up against is an imposing challenge. They are inconsistent - in their shooting, their focus and even their energy. They are struggling, posting a 4-7 record in their last 11 games. And they are unsure of themselves, despite their assurances to the contrary.

In spite of all this, however, the Vols think they can right the ship as they sail into NCAA Tournament play.

"I see signs that it could happen if we just focus on what we've got to do - the process to advance - and be excited to play," senior point guard Melvin Goins said. "Hopefully, we'll be excited, relish the moment and try to play our best basketball."

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