That doesn't sound like such a daunting task until one considers Tennessee's long-standing futility in March Madness. Incredible as it sounds, the Vols have won back-to-back NCAA Tournament games just twice previously – 2000 and 2007 – in the 99-year history of their program.
Heck, just getting to The Dance has been a tough task for the Big Orange in some decades.
After participating seven times in a span of eight years – 1976, '77, '79, '80, '81, '82 and '83 – Tennessee made the field just five times – 1989, '98, '99, 2000, 2001, 2002 – in the 22-year stretch that followed.
And, as noted previously, the quality of UT's appearances has been just as poor as the quantity.
Although the Vols recorded six 20-win seasons and made The Dance six times between 1998 and 2007, their Tourney record during that 10-year stretch was a nondescript 6 wins and 6 losses.
All told, Tennessee's record in NCAA Tournament play is a paltry 11-15. The Vols were "one and done" in six of their previous 15 tourney appearances. They were "two and through" another seven times. Only twice – 2000 and 2007 – did they manage to make the Sweet 16.
What follows is a quick look at UT's underwhelming NCAA Tournament history:
- Ray Mears guided Tennessee to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1967, when the field was limited to 16 teams. With the field expanded to 32 teams, the Vols returned to The Dance under his guidance in 1976 and '77. Tennessee suffered first-round losses each time, however, leaving Mears with an 0-3 NCAA Tournament record.
- Don DeVoe guided Tennessee to NCAA bids in each of his first five seasons. The Vols won first-round games in 1979, '80, '81, '82 and '83 before losing in the second round each time. The NCAA field consisted of 40 teams in '79, 48 teams from '80 through '82 and 53 teams in '83. After a five-year absence, DeVoe returned UT to The Dance in 1989, by which time the field had expanded to 64 teams. Still, the '89 Vols suffered a first-round loss, and DeVoe finished with a 5-6 record in NCAA Tournament play.
- Tennessee then went eight consecutive years (1990-1997) without earning an NCAA bid – five under Wade Houston and three more under Kevin O'Neill.
- Inheriting outstanding talent from O'Neill, Jerry Green guided Tennessee to four consecutive NCAA Tournament bids in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001. Green reached the Sweet 16 in 2000 but suffered first-round losses in '98 and 2001, and a second-round loss in '99. Overall, his NCAA Tournament record was a disappointing 3-4.
- After a four-year NCAA tourney absence during the Buzz Peterson era, Tennessee returned to The Dance under first-year coach Bruce Pearl in 2006. The Vols notched one win before bowing out in '06 and two victories before being ousted in '07, giving Pearl a 3-2 NCAA record heading into this year's event. He is the only coach in Vol history with a winning record in NCAA Tourneament play.
Oddly enough, two of the toughest losses in Big Orange history occurred in the program's two most recent Sweet 16 appearances. The 2000 Vols led North Carolina by seven points with 4:48 remaining only to see a 13-0 Tar Heel explosion fuel a 17-5 finishing kick that turned a 64-57 UT lead into a gut-wrenching 74-69 setback.
The 2007 Vols' Sweet 16 disappointment may have been even more heart-breaking. Tennessee led Ohio State by 17 points (49-32) at halftime only to succumb to a frantic second-half rally and lose 85-84 when Ramar Smith's potential game-winning layup was blocked at the buzzer.