Strange: Lofton's shot ruins a great story: Winthrop

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- In theory, the No. 2 seed and the No. 15 seed are supposed to be farther apart than a crazy shot at the last second.

But theory and reality are often apples and oranges on days like this in events like this.

"Welcome to March Madness,'' said Bruce Pearl, opening his press conference after his Tennessee team's 63-61 victory over Winthrop on Thursday, opening day of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

What does it say that the Vols needed an amazing shot from Chris Lofton to survive and advance past the Big South Conference champion?

"Maybe this doesn't bode well for us continuing to win,'' Pearl said, "but Tennessee played well.''

A No. 2 seed is only one notch below the top. In other words, catch a break and you're in the Final Four.

A No. 15 is one step up from the bottom of the barrel. You barely avoided the play-in game.

Forget about those designations. They meant nothing Thursday, less than nothing.

The Vols aren't what anybody thinks of a traditional No. 2 seed. Given their limitations, particularly in size, they have the look of a mid-major team.

As for Winthrop, the Eagles were grossly undervalued at 15.

They never gave an inch to the SEC East champions with the lofty No. 6 RPI.

"That's Big South against SEC and they were manhandling us,'' Pearl said.

UT center Major Wingate had never heard of Winthrop before the bracket was drawn up. But after 40 minutes of Winthrop, he offered tribute:

"I think they could come in the SEC and give everybody a run for their money.

"They have everything we have.''

And Pearl intends to do something about that.

He had to play the roster Buzz Peterson left him and he's played it like a grand piano, squeezing out 22 wins and counting.

"It's going to take me a couple of years,'' Pearl said, "and I love this roster, I love these kids. But we're not going to find ourselves so physically challenged again.

"Both in recruiting and in the off-season, we've got to get bigger, stronger and tougher. We'll be in that weight room as soon as this thing is over.''

This thing will be over Saturday if the Vols can't beat a true mid-major, Wichita State.

Lofton's shot made it over now for Winthrop.

Lofton's shot was a great story, but it also ruined a great story.

The Eagles were the trendy upset special, which speaks to Tennessee's vulnerability as well as Winthrop's qualifications.

A 15 seed has knocked off a 2 seed only four times in 20 years and not at all since 2001.

The Eagles thought they had beaten the odds. They were crushed by Lofton's basket.

"You just wish and do everything you can,'' said Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall, "and then he hits the great shot.''

Speaking for Winthrop's players and fans, forward James Shuler said, "I am totally devastated with the way things went down.''

Just like Pacific, a No. 13 seed, was devastated Thursday when it lost to No. 4 seed Boston College in double overtime.

Just like No. 6 seed Oklahoma was devastated when it lost Thursday to No. 11 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Sometimes the giant is slayed. Sometimes the giant gets away. A crazy shot can be the only difference.

College basketball reeks of parity. Put two decent teams on a neutral court in a loser-goes-home environment in March and ...

"This is what March Madness is all about,'' said Pearl.

"When you get down to the Sweet 16 or the Elite Eight, the cream rises to the top. But early on, anything can happen.''

Especially when two teams are as closely matched as Tennessee and Winthrop.

Pearl foresees a day when UT and the Big South champ won't be a toss-up. But for now, forget the seeds.

They mean nothing.

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