Vols surrender Cinderella role

Since upsetting Texas back in December Tennessee has been the Cinderella team of college basketball. But now the glass slipper is on the other foot … Winthrop's.

As a lowly No. 15 seed, Winthrop will be cast as the lovable underdog Thursday in NCAA Tournament action at Greensboro, N.C. That leaves the second-seeded Vols to play the role of the heavy … as in heavy favorite. Everyone loves the underdog and no one loves the heavy. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl understands this better than most.

"Everybody in Greensboro that's not wearing orange is going to be rooting for Winthrop," he said. "Winthrop's closer – North Carolina and South Carolina based – and it's the 15 seed. That's what the NCAA Tournament's all about."

Pearl speaks from experience. He coached last year's NCAA Cinderella team, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, into the Sweet 16 by beating heavy favorite Alabama in the Round of 32 at Cleveland, Ohio.

"We had the entire crowd going for us at Cleveland when we beat Alabama," Pearl recalled.

Since the crowd in Greensboro will be pulling for Winthrop to beat Tennessee, how much impact will that have on the outcome?

"It'll help Winthrop play better," Pearl said. "It won't bother us because we've been on the road in hostile environments but it will raise Winthrop's level of play."

Although he is familiar with the Cinderella role, Pearl is no stranger to the heavy favorite's role. Some of his Southern Indiana teams were very high seeds in NCAA Div. II Tournament action.

"We were a 1 or 2 seed several times at Southern Indiana," Pearl recalled.

Being a 2 seed in Div. II is a lot different than being a No. 2 seed in Div. I, however.

"When I was a 1 or 2 at Southern Indiana we were significantly better than the lower seeds," Pearl said. "That isn't the case now. We're not significantly better than Winthrop.

"They beat Marquette, they lost in single digits to Memphis. They lost by two on a buzzer-beater to Auburn. They lost by three to Alabama and had the ball at the end with a chance to tie.

"There's just not that much difference in the quality of the teams, like there was at Southern Indiana. When we were seeded No. 1 in those days we were a lot better than the teams that were seeded low."

Still, one thing is the same for any high seed, whether it is competing at the Div. I or Div. II level. A team with a high seed feels considerable pressure to live up to it. That's why Pearl is trying hard to keep his players relaxed.

"I just want them to absolutely, positively enjoy it – enjoy the trip, enjoy the experience, enjoy the fact we're still playing," he said. "I'm doing everything I can to take the pressure off of them and focus on playing some good basketball."

How are the Vols handling the pressure? Even Pearl can't say for sure.

"We worked on a few things and we've just got to turn ‘em loose now," he said. "The only way I'll be able to tell you whether or not we're nervous is when the ball gets tipped off on Thursday."

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