Given all of the above, the Tennessee Vols should be the Cinderella story of this year's NCAA Tournament. Instead, they'll be playing the ugly stepsister role when they face Mercer here Sunday at 6:10 in PNC Arena. The 14th-seeded Bears locked up the Cinderella mantle Friday afternoon by shocking third-seeded Duke … along with most of the civilized world.
Tennessee (23-12) is an eight-point favorite in the oddsmakers' eyes but Mercer (26-8) is the sentimental favorite in the fans' eyes. America loves an underdog, and The Bears are even bigger 'dogs now that 6-foot-11, 250-pound center Monty Brown is likely sidelined by an apparent concussion suffered in the first half against Duke.
Will public sentiment help the Bears? No doubt. But the Vols have some incentive, too. Mercer trounced them last March in Knoxville, ousting the Vols from the NIT and ending their season in humiliating fashion.
If you think the Big Orange has forgotten that setback, think again. Payback would be sweet.
"It's big for us," junior wing Josh Richardson said. "Mercer came into our own house and whooped us last year. We'll remember that when we're playing."
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin studiously avoids "revenge" angles and encourages his players to do the same. When asked if the Vols hope to avenge last March's loss to Mercer, junior post Jarnell Stokes squirmed in his seat, then laughed nervously before answering.
"Not exactly," he said, clearly uncomfortable with the topic.
Senior wing Jordan McRae lapsed into coach-speak when asked what he recalled about the previous meeting.
"Not much," he said. "They're really well coached and they run good sets. That's all."
Even senior post Jeronne Maymon, normally Tennessee's most candid player, had little to say when asked what he remembered about last year's meeting.
"I don't," he said "I know they beat us in the NIT and they're a really good team."
Reporters also had no luck getting the Vols to admit that they were looking forward to a Sunday matchup with Duke, arguably college basketball's marquee program.
"Not at all," Maymon said. "I don't care about playing Duke. It's whoever's in front of us. If it was Duke, then we've got to go through Duke. But it's Mercer, so we have to go out there and play our game against them on Sunday."
One Vol exhibited absolutely no sympathy for the devastated Blue Devil players as they filed past the Vols following Friday's loss to Mercer.
"We actually walked past them as we were entering the court," Stokes said, adding with a shrug: "It's the NCAA Tournament, and a lot of teams are waiting for this moment."
Martin said Duke's high profile was never a factor for his team.
"We didn't come into this tournament saying, 'OK, if we beat UMass, we can play Duke.' Not at all," the Vol coach said. "Our guys understand that it's one game at a time. Anything can happen this time of year."
Including a 14 seed beating a 3 seed with Coach K sitting on the bench.
Echoing his coach, Richardson said the possibility of a Sunday matchup with Duke never crossed his mind.
"No, we weren't even worried about the next game," he said. "We were just worried about beating UMass."
When a reporter noted that the 14-seeded Bears represent an easier path to the Sweet 16 than the 3-seeded Blue Devils, Richardson's response was incredulous.
"It's obviously not an easier path, since they came out and beat Duke," he said." It's going to be tough. Everybody's playing their best basketball right now, so we'll have to come out and play well."
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