DAYTON, Ohio — The Tennessee men’s basketball team found a new identity, but its legacy has yet to be determined.
To this point, the Vols’ (21-12) season has been filled with false starts, ups and downs and more near-misses than shining moments.
When UT’s starting five sat down on a lighted stage at the University of Dayton Arena on Thursday, the first question summed things up nicely:
“It was kind of an up-and-down ragged season for Tennessee,’’ the national newspaper writer said. “Do you see the tournament as a chance to get on the right path ...?’’
Friday’s game (TV: WVLT, 12:25 p.m.) against eighth-seeded Oklahoma State (22-11) in the first round of the NCAA East Regional is the only path remaining.
There is no regular-season championship, unprecedented win total, ranking or conference tournament title for the these Vols to hang their hats on.
“The winner of our game gets one of the top teams in the country, (and) that’s when you try to get in that one shining moment stuff,’’ said UT coach Bruce Pearl, whose team is a No. 9 seed. “I promised my guys if we’re able to advance through this weekend, it will be something we’ll never forget.’’
The victor of today’s game between the Vols and the Cowboys will likely play Pittsburgh, the East’s No. 1 seed and the No. 1-rated RPI team in the nation. Pittsburgh plays East Tennessee State in other first-round action in Dayton today.
With Midwest Regional No. 1 seed Louisville and nearby Ohio State also playing at this site this weekend, Tennessee has walked the hallways in relative anonymity.
“We don’t look at it like that, coming in under the radar or without the target,’’ UT junior Tyler Smith said. “We know who the target is, and it’s Pittsburgh coming out of the Big East.
“We’re not picked to make it out of the first round.’’
Still, Pearl said, the Vols hardly bring a nothing-to-lose approach into today’s action.
“Our expectation is to try to advance,’’ Pearl said. “We don’t feel any less pressure because we’re the nine (seed).
If we don’t win it, we’ll be really disappointed.’’