Vols 'chip' away

Rumors that Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl visited UT Medical Center this week to have a chip removed from his shoulder proved unfounded. The chip is still there.

Many Vol players have the same affliction. A 29-4 record, a No. 4 national ranking and a No. 1 RPI wasn't enough to get them a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. Instead, it got them a No. 2 seed and a sense of righteous indignation heading into Friday's East Regional opener against American University (11:15 CST tipoff at Birmingham).

"I don't think there's any question," Pearl said this week. "But just because you've got a chip on your shoulder … you've still got to play the game, and you've got to play well."

Big Orange basketball has overcome a lot of hurdles the past three seasons but, obviously, still has a few left to clear. Many observers continue to view Tennessee as a football school. Many haven't forgotten how consistently bad Vol hoops was from the mid-1980s through the mid-2000s. Many recall how UT choked at Tournament time under Jerry Green (1998-2001). Many are acutely aware that the one time the Vols got some post-season respect – a No. 2 seed in 2006 – they squeaked by in Round 1 and lost in Round 2.

As a result, the Vols are left to "chip" away at the unflattering image they have on the national stage.

"We definitely have a lot to prove," Pearl said. "We have a lot to prove to ourselves."

It seems odd for a Tennessee program that was thrilled to be seeded No. 2 in 2006 to feel insulted by the same seeding in 2008. The irony of the situation is not lost on Pearl.

"It's all about human nature," the coach said, adding: "Our kids were a little more excited (in '06) than they are right now. But we have higher expectations."

After watching the Vols post a 22-8 record in 2006, a 24-11 record in '07 and a 29-4 record thus far in '08, Tennessee's fans have higher expectations, too. Getting a No. 2 seed from the NCAA selection committee aroused their anger but didn't dampen their enthusiasm.

"I think the best thing about this whole thing is that our fans are still enjoying it," Pearl said. "Our fans are still excited about it. They're not less excited about this team than they were three years ago, and that's a great thing."

Tennessee has never advanced beyond the Sweet 16, so that's an obvious goal for the 2008 Vols.

"We'd like to keep making history," Pearl said. "We'd like to go farther than we've gone. Wouldn't it be great if this team can make another step? What that step is and how far I don't know. But wouldn't it be great if we could go farther than any Tennessee team has gone?"

Perhaps the '08 Vols WILL go farther than any team in program history. Perhaps the chips on the their shoulders will fire them up – not weigh them down – this weekend in Birmingham.

"I like the way the guys are thinking," Pearl noted. "I like the way they're preparing.... We've seen it all and we'll be excited about playing."

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