After sitting out March Madness four years in a row, the 2006 Vols were understandably thrilled to be invited to The Dance. Getting a program-best No. 2 seed sent them into the clouds but made the plummet back to Earth even more painful. After squeaking by No. 15 seed Winthrop 63-61 in Round 1, they suffered a humbling 80-73 loss to seventh-seeded Wichita State in Round 2.
Head coach Bruce Pearl believes that awful memory will provide extra incentive when his fifth-seeded Vols (22-10) begin 2007 NCAA play Friday at 2:45 against No. 12 seed Long Beach State (24-7) in the South Regional. If so, last year's experience – painful as it was – should benefit Tennessee.
"I think it helps in the sense that last year when the season ended – for whatever reason – we felt like we didn't take advantage of the opportunity," Pearl said. "The kids felt that way a little more than I did. I had too much respect for Winthrop and Wichita State. I wasn't going to get all bogged down in a 15 seed or a 7 seed or whatever. I could only see the quality of the team."
Tennessee's players were not nearly so philosophical. They viewed the second-round loss as a humiliating failure. They knew they had a better team than Wichita State. They knew they had a golden opportunity to win their way into the Sweet 16 for only the second time in program history. That made the setback all the more gut-wrenching.
"I think we felt like we didn't take advantage of the opportunity of a 2 seed … and we didn't," Pearl conceded. "Now we have a 5 seed, and I feel like the veterans want to take advantage of the situation we've put ourselves in."
Senior Dane Bradshaw was part of Tennessee's 2006 NCAA Tournament experience. So were juniors Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Jordan Howell, along with sophomore Ryan Childress. The rest of UT's nine-man rotation – freshmen Ramar Smith, Duke Crews, Wayne Chism and Josh Tabb – will be new to the hoopla and pressure of NCAA Tournament play. That doesn't concern Pearl one bit, however.
"As far as the freshmen are concerned, they expected to be in the NCAA Tournament," he said with a smile. "This is why they came to Tennessee. I would've probably had a harder time keeping my freshmen in line, as relates to the disappointment of not being in the NCAA Tournament, than my veterans. These guys came in and played to make the Tournament and advance in it."
For the freshmen, Columbus represents Step One on a mystical journey. For the Vols' veterans, it represents Step One on the road to redemption.