Making history

The 2009-10 Tennessee Vols would make top-ranked Kansas fall from the ranks of the unbeaten on Jan. 10 by shocking the Jayhawks, 76-68.

The Vols would make the second-ranked Kentucky Wildcats look like mere mortals on Feb.27 by upsetting the Big Blue, 74-65.

The Vols would make make it through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament's Midwest Regional at Providence, R.I. last weekend by beating San Diego State and Ohio University.

Now the Vols are looking to make history. No team in program annals has advanced past the Sweet 16, a fact head coach Bruce Pearl has heard hundreds of times since he arrived in Knoxville nearly six years ago. Instead of making him mad, though, the negative statistic is making him more determined than ever to break through the barrier.

"Our team has been playing to make history all season long," he said. "We've made a little bit of history with some big wins.

"This team is one win away from going someplace (Elite Eight) that no Tennessee team has ever gone. Every one of us would like to have our name on that accomplishment."

Now that No. 1 seed Kansas has been eliminated from the Midwest Regional field, Tennessee has a reasonably good shot at making the Final Four. Should the sixth-seeded Vols beat No. 2 seed Ohio State Friday at 6:07 Central Time in St. Louis, they would play Sunday vs. the winner between No. 9 seed Northern Iowa (30-4) and No. 5 seed Michigan State (26-8) for the region title and a Final Four berth.

"Every team in this field has got great motivation," Pearl said. "Ohio State is sitting there going: 'We've got to get by Tennessee, Northern Iowa and Michigan State to go to the Final Four; I'll take that.

"Northern Iowa is going: 'We've already beaten the best team in this regional (Kansas). We've got to get by Tennessee, Ohio State and Michigan State to get to the Final Four; I'll take that.

"We've got to look at it the exact same way: We're two wins from away from going to the Final Four. When you've won 27 games, winning two more ... We've won two games on weekends before, and I want to approach it that way."

Pearl has reached the Sweet 16 three of the past four seasons at Tennessee. When reminded of this following Saturday's defeat of Ohio, however, he quickly pointed out that his team has never reached an Elite Eight. That raises the question: Does the coach feel he has "a monkey on his back" in terms of advancing beyond the round of 16?

"No, but it will be if it continues," Pearl replied. "It'll be a great problem to have if every year I can't get my team from the Sweet 16 to the Elite Eight. That's like when (Duke coach) Mike Krzyzewski got to the Four Four every year but couldn't win the national championship.

"That was a real burden," Pearl added, grinning smugly. "What a crutch to bear."

All kidding aside, the Vol coach knows that he will face annual reminders about Tennessee's failure to advance beyond the Sweet 16 until the Vols lay that demon to rest.

"I want to go and get this program where it hasn't gone before," he said. "I want to do something to continue to build our history."

Counting his final year at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pearl has reached the Sweet 16 in four of the past six years. Each time he lost to a superior opponent.

His 2005 Milwaukee team was beaten by Illinois, which went on to reach the NCAA title game. His 2007 Tennessee team fell to Ohio State, which also reached the championship game before bowing. His 2008 Vol squad was ousted by a red-hot Louisville team coached by Rick Pitino.

"Two years ago Louisville, if it hadn't run into North Carolina at the regional final in Charlotte, was a team that was good enough to get to the Final Four," Pearl said.

"It's not like we've stubbed our toe."

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