ST. LOUIS - Tennessee knows it's going to be in for a war of sorts against Michigan State.
Physical basketball is nothing new to the fifth-seeded Spartans (27-8), a veteran NCAA tournament team that under coach Tom Izzo holds an inner-squad rebounding competition each day it refers to as "War."
Michigan State, which leads the nation with a plus-nine rebounding margin, has gone at the drill so ferociously as to have the players don football gear, helmets and all.
"It's going to be a fight on the inside for the ball,'' UT senior Wayne Chism said Saturday. "Ever since I've been at Tennessee people have been saying we are soft, but we've stood up to every challenge.
"This year we made an identity for ourselves by guarding, being physical and rebounding, and no one is going to stop us from playing that way.''
But the sixth-seeded Vols (28-8) know it's a sure bet the Spartans will try to out-muscle them when the teams tip off today (TV: 2:20 p.m., WVLT) at the Edward Jones Dome with a trip to play Butler in the Final Four on the line.
Michigan State has won more NCAA tournament games (32) since 1999 than any other program, and the Spartans have done it with defense and rebounding.
Michigan State has rotated four wide-bodied players at its three front-line positions this season that average 244 pounds - none weighing in at less than 230.
"There's one thing I've not questioned about the guys on this podium here,'' Izzo said. "I've never questioned their toughness, and that's about as good a compliment as I can give them, personally.
"The mentality is . . . tough players win, and I mean that in any sport, any walk of life; could be physically, could be mentally, but it's usually the way it is.''
Both Michigan State and Tennessee pulled together after losing their star players. UT lost All-SEC forward Tyler Smith after his arrest on Jan. 1, and the Spartans lost point guard and former Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas to a torn Achilles against Maryland in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The teams' presence in the Elite Eight indicates mental toughness is not in question.
That leaves physical toughness; desire and brute strength.
"We know we have to prove we won't get pushed around by Michigan State,'' UT wing Cameron Tatum said. "It's about pride, and you can't be fearful. They play physical, we have to play physical right back.''
Tatum (6-foot-6, 197 pounds) and fellow wing J.P. Prince (6-7, 205) have one of the more intriguing matchups, going up against Michigan State senior Raymar Morgan, a 6-8, 230-pounder.
"He's been really focused this end of the year, which happens to a lot of seniors,'' Izzo said. "You could argue whether he's been our best player these last 10 or 12 games, but he's been our most consistent on all ends of the court.''
Morgan echoes Izzo's message: "We live by the same motto: tough players play to win, and it's worked for us over the years.''
If rebounding is basketball's measure of toughness, the statistics back up that mantra for both teams. Michigan State is 23-4 when out-rebounding an opponent; Tennessee is 16-0 when it wins the battle on the boards.
UT coach Bruce Pearl said it's not a matter of boxing out one or two players.
"It's several guys,'' Pearl said. "If they can't get it, they keep it alive. If they can't keep it alive, they'll knock you down trying to keep it alive.''
UT point guard Bobby Maze said the message is clear.
"It's been proven throughout this whole tournament, the team that plays the hardest, the most physical, defends the best and rebounds wins the basketball game,'' Maze said. "That's going to be the key in this game. We want to go out and play 40 minutes of Tennessee basketball.''