Staying power = staying alive

Losing four of its last six games in 2006 taught Tennessee's basketball team a valuable lesson: Staying alive in March requires staying power. The '07 Vols have it, which is why they're facing Ohio State in the NCAA Sweet 16 tonight (8:57 CDT tip-off) at San Antonio.

Basically, this newfound staying power can be traced to three things:

1. Better conditioning

2. Better depth

3. Better use of personnel

The 2005-06 Vols hit the wall in March. Clearly fatigued, they lacked the energy to play the frenetic pace that served them so well in November, December, January and February. As a result, they lost two of their last three regular-season games, their SEC Tournament opener and their second-round game in the NCAA Tournament.

Recognizing the need for more strength and stamina, the Vols worked even more diligently in the weight room in preparation for the 2006-07 season. That dedication has helped them play harder for longer periods of time this season.

"Troy Willis, our conditioning coach, is with us every single day," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "We have not tired this season. We have gotten stronger."

Shortly after arriving at Tennessee in March of 2005, Pearl asked that his players be allowed to lift weights in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex, the same facility used by Vol football players.

"There's a little more pressure over there," Pearl said, noting that basketball players don't want to appear weak while working out alongside the gridders.

"That's where the guys who are going to play in the NFL – the guys who'll be playing on Sunday – are," the coach added. "They're in there. We don't have any NBA players at Tennessee."

Pearl increased the pressure even more by pumping some iron himself. When he lifted more weight than senior forward Andre Patterson two years ago, Patterson was shamed into working harder on his conditioning.

As Pearl put it: "If Coach can lift twice as much as you can – and I can't play dead in a cowboy movie – that's not good."

Thanks to improved strength and stamina, the 2006-07 Vols were able to outmuscle some foes and to outhustle some others. They have been stronger at the end of games and stronger at the end of the season.

"I think you're seeing the results of that this year," Pearl said. "We're definitely fresher, and conditioning is a factor."

Another reason Tennessee is fresher is that the addition of four quality freshmen has given Pearl more options in 2006-07. After wearing out a seven-man rotation last year, he has enjoyed the luxury of a nine-man rotation this season.

And, thanks to the greater depth, Pearl has been able to give his reserves more playing time and his starters more rest. That keeps the reserves focused and keeps the starters refreshed.

"Part of the story is the balance," Pearl noted. "If you look at the stat sheet it's nine guys that play ... nine guys that shoot ... nine guys that share the ball.

"I think that's what makes us an effective team."

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