"I don't want to say we were just happy to be there," senior Dane Bradshaw said of last year's NCAA visit, "but I think we learned from that experience."
One thing the Vols learned is that basketball is a different game when March Madness arrives. The stakes increase. The pressures increase. The audiences increase. The intensity levels increase. So, if a team expects to make a serious run, its focus had better increase, as well.
Bradshaw is trying to convey that lesson to Wayne Chism, Duke Crews, Ramar Smith and Josh Tabb – the four UT freshmen who will be making their NCAA Tournament debuts Friday at Columbus, Ohio against Long Beach State.
"You just have to really raise the bar in practice," Bradshaw said. "Right now we're fortunate it's spring break, and we have all day to sharpen our skills and get some extra shots. You can't settle for good practices; they have to be great because you have to really separate yourselves in March."
Despite a No. 2 seed, Tennessee limped into the NCAA Tournament last year, having lost four of its previous six games. This time the Vols enter The Dance with a 5 seed but with seven wins in their last nine games. They also boast a nine-man rotation – compared to a seven-man rotation last year – which has helped keep energy levels higher.
Last year's team featured six guys who averaged at least 24 minutes per game, including two who averaged 30-plus per game – Chris Lofton and C.J. Watson at 31.9 each. This year's team features only four guys playing at least 24 minutes and zero playing 30 or more.
"I love the players and the veterans we had last year," Bradshaw said. "But I think you can see this year what a difference adding one player to the rotation can make. Taking a few minutes out of each man's rotation has really added up through the course of the season. I think that's why you're seeing fresh legs from us right now."
Fresh legs, of course, provide extra explosiveness on the fast break, extra elevation on jump shots and rebounds, plus extra energy and stamina on defense. That bodes well for Tennessee heading into this year's NCAA Tournament.
As Bradshaw noted: "I think we're playing our best basketball right now."