Vols react to NCAA bid

If Tennessee needs extra motivation in the NCAA Tournament, it can't play the no-respect card – and Bruce Pearl knows it. The Vols are a No. 5 seed, the second-highest in the SEC this year. They were a No. 2 seed last year – the highest in the SEC.

``That card has long been played,'' Pearl said Sunday night, after the NCAA Selection Committee paired Tennessee against No. 12 seed Long Beach State in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday night.

Pearl loves the fact that the Vols will play on Ohio State's court, where UT was ``outstanding'' in almost upsetting No. 1 Ohio State in January. And he loves the fact that despite having a young roster, this team is deeper and healthier and perhaps hungrier than last year's team, which struggled to beat 15-seed Winthrop, then lost to Wichita State.

Tennessee had more experience last year, with three seniors and a junior in Major Wingate. Those four were replaced by four true freshmen.

Pearl was asked if he'd rather have experience or depth.

``I prefer being deeper,'' Pearl said.

Lack of depth caught up with Tennessee last year. After the Vols upset Florida in Gainesville to win the East Division outright, they never regained their form.

``You never wanted to say it and you hated to see it,'' Dane Bradshaw said, ``but you could tell we just weren't as sharp and some guys didn't have same pep in their step. You never wanted to admit that but I think we did tire out at the end of the season. We needed another man in the rotation. We were playing too many minutes for our style of play.''

That's not the case right now. Nine players average at least 16 minutes.

Bradshaw said he wishes Tennessee had those seniors back, but at the same time, he likes the way this team is playing headed to Columbus.

``I am more excited and anxious to see what we'll do this year than I was last year,'' Bradshaw said. ``Before the LSU game, we were so close to having everyone play at the peak of their game.''

Bradshaw said last year's team celebrated being a two seed. This year, it's more about business.

``Last year it was something that was new to us and we had the right to celebrate with as much as we'd been through,'' Bradshaw. ``We have the right to celebrate (Sunday night) but at the same time, we realize we missed an opportunity last year and I'm very fortunate to have another shot at it my senior year.''

JaJuan Smith wants another shot, also. He played poorly in a loss to LSU in the first-round of the SEC Tournament. He's ready to put that game in the rearview mirror.

``Our backs are against the wall,'' Smith said. ``We were sick to our stomach to come home (from the SEC tournament) and watch the games on TV. We don't want to feel that way again. We're going to bounce back real tough and get this thing going.''

Smith thinks the Vols can build on last year's experience.

``Last year was the first time for anybody in a Tennessee uniform (to play in the NCAA tourney),'' Smith said. ``We've been there, done that. We're ready to go and take care of business. We're not going for jokes and games.''

Despite UT being so young, guard Jordan Howell said the true freshman have been exposed to playing at Ohio State, to playing at Madison Square Garden, to playing against the likes of Florida and Texas and Memphis.

``I don't think it's anything new for these guys,'' Howell said. ``They've played against the top teams in the country. They're ready for it.''

Is Tennessee's team? The Vols' weaknesses were exposed – again – in the LSU game. The Vols had long periods of scoring droughts. They had trouble with a strong, big man. They didn't perform well in the half-court offense or half-court defense.

Was it enough to shake the team's confidence?

``No,'' Howell said. ``It makes us want to fight back. We can't just show up and win games. We've got to bring our A game each night.''

You often hear the NCAA Tournament is all about matchups. Howell doesn't agree.

``I think it's all about execution,'' Howell said. ``We learned that against LSU.''

Pearl sees if differently.

``You have to execute to win,'' Pearl said, ``but in the NCAA Tournament, I really believe it's all about matchups.''

Pearl doesn't know much about UT's first assignment, Long Beach State.

``I know they're going to be like, ridiculously athletic and very, very quick and loaded with junior college kids because that's historically what Long Beach State has been like,'' Pearl said.

The Vols will know more after watching film this week. But they already know if they play well, they can reach the Sweet 16 for just the third time in program history and perhaps go even farther.

Just a few weeks ago, UT led No. 1 seed Florida by 27 points in Knoxville.

``That tells us when we shoot well,'' Bradshaw said, ``we can beat any team in the country. At the same time, we know if we don't play our game and play our hearts out, anyone else can beat us as well.''

That's what March Madness is all about.

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