Despite a higher seed (second vs. third) and a better record (31-4 vs. 26-8), the Vols are projected to lose to the Cardinals in tonight's East Regional semifinals. Pearl accepts the underdog role. Heck, he EMBRACES the underdog role. It's probably his favorite motivational tool.
When asked this week if Tennessee should be the underdog to a lower seed with a lesser record, Pearl nodded emphatically.
"No doubt," he said. "If you look at the two teams, I've got no problem thinking Louisville is a better team and playing better right now."
Based on last Sunday's performances at the sub-regional in Birmingham, that certainly seems to be the case. The Cardinals drilled Oklahoma 78-48 to earn their Sweet 16 bid; the Vols squeaked past Butler 76-71 in overtime.
Based on historical precedent, Tennessee should be a heavy underdog tonight. The Vols are making just their fourth appearance in the Sweet 16 since the NCAA began keeping this statistic in 1975. Conversely, Louisville is making its 16th appearance during the same span. Only four schools have played in more – North Carolina (22), Kentucky (20), Duke (19) and UCLA (17).
Moreover, Louisville coach Rick Pitino has a 34-11 record in NCAA Tournament play with five Final Fours and a national title to his credit. Pearl, a relative newcomer to The Dance, is 7-4 and has not advanced past the Round of 16.
Throw in the fact Louisville has won 11 of the last 12 meetings with Tennessee – romping 85-62 in 2005 when the teams last met – and it's understandable that Pearl said he has "no problem with the underdog role in this regional."
Historically, the Sweet 16 has been anything but sweet for Tennessee. After a first-round bye in a 23-team field, the 1967 Vols lost 53-52 in the Round of 16. Following a first-round bye and a second-round win, the 1981 Vols were dumped 62-48 by Virginia. After first- and second-round victories, the 2000 Vols led North Carolina by seven points with 4:48 to go, only to wilt down the stretch and lose 74-69. Last March, following a pair of victories, the 2007 Vols led Ohio State by 17 at halftime before falling victim to a frantic Buckeye comeback and losing 85-84.
In 99 years of collegiate competition, Tennessee has never advanced beyond the Sweet 16. The Vols' coach wants his players acutely aware of this negative statistic heading into tonight's game.
"Absolutely," Pearl said. "That's something we talk about. This team has been about trying to make history."
Although Tennessee had to pull away late to beat American University 72-57 and had to go overtime to nip Butler 76-71 last weekend at Birmingham, the head man believes his team handled the pressure of March Madness reasonably well in its first two NCAA Tournament tests.
"The players were very focused," he said. "I was very pleased with how they responded.... We represented SEC basketball well in the hometown of our SEC office, in front of our commissioner and associate commissioner. And our fans turned out in a big, big way."
Pearl is hoping Vol fans turn out in a big, big way for the Charlotte Regional, which also features the North Carolina Tar Heels, the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed.
Calling North Carolina and Louisville "two storied programs," Pearl noted that "The rest of the world is going to take notice of how our program acts" in such a pressure-packed environment, adding: "We're certainly going to be challenged in every way."