"We've played six of the Sweet 16, so we do feel prepared," head coach Bruce Pearl said this week. "And how good was the SEC East?"
Florida won the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division title, while Tennessee and Vanderbilt tied for second at 10-6. The fact all three remain in the hunt for the NCAA championship underscores the toughness of the division.
"It's no better than I thought it was during the season," Pearl said, "but maybe other people appreciate how good it is … three teams from that division in the Sweet 16."
Tennessee advanced to the Round of 32 in last year's NCAA Tournament before suffering an upset loss to Wichita State. As a result, Pearl said getting to the Sweet 16 represented the "next step" in UT's quest for basketball excellence.
"What we did last weekend was essential," he said, referring to Round 1 and 2 defeats of Long Beach State (121-86) and Virginia (77-74). "If we're going to be a top-20 program, you've got to play in the Sweet 16."
Pearl thinks the Vols accomplished both objectives last weekend.
"I believe we're a top-20 program," he said. "But the only way I can say that and not be laughed at is if you do it (make the Sweet 16) with consistency."
All-America guard Chris Lofton believes much of this year's success can be traced to facing six Sweet 16-caliber teams during the regular season.
"It's great playing those type teams," he said. "It gets you ready for tournament time. You always want to play the hardest schedule for the NCAA Tournament."
The Vols certainly did that. They faced three of the NCAA Tournament's four No. 1 seeds – Florida, Ohio State and North Carolina. Asked what that proves, Lofton smiled.
"We don't back down from nobody," he said. "We're not afraid of nobody."
Almost no one expected a Tennessee squad featuring four freshmen among the top eight players to reach the Sweet 16. Now that it has happened, though, Lofton says the Vols must not rest on their laurels.
"It's great to be in the Sweet 16 but we're trying to do much more than that," he said. "We're trying to go as far as we possibly can."
Although the Vols suffered a second-round loss in last year's tournament, Lofton believes that experience is beneficial heading into tonight's game.
"It really is," he said. "We've been there before, and we've already gotten farther than we did last year, so this is exciting."
The fact Tennessee already faced Ohio State should be helpful, too, especially since the Vols played the Buckeyes to a 68-66 loss in Columbus.
"We weren't overwhelmed the first time, from the standpoint that we knew they were a great team and we hung in there with them," Pearl said. "But I think we played pretty well that afternoon, and I think we got Ohio State on a day when they didn't play one of their better games."