Cameron Tatum talks about what it will take to win NIT
NEW YORK - It has been said that the present in New York is so powerful that the past is lost.
The Tennessee men's basketball team is hoping that proves true, if only for this evening, as the Vols play No. 7 Villanova (5-0) in the NIT Season Tip-Off championship game in Madison Square Garden (TV: ESPN, 5 p.m.).
The 24th-ranked Vols (4-0) will be in search of their first tournament championship in Bruce Pearl's six-year tenure at UT.
"If we can win this,'' UT post Brian Williams said in the days leading up to the tournament, "they'll have to talk about our team.''
The Vols have received plenty of attention early this season, but most of it has involved the ongoing NCAA investigation into recruiting-related violations and Pearl's misleading testimony with investigators.
In the meantime, Tennessee has quietly gotten off to its sixth consecutive 4-0 start.
Tonight's game offers the Vols an opportunity to do something no other Pearl-coached team has done: win a tournament.
"Doing something that hasn't been done in a long time would be special and get us back to being talked about for what we're doing on the court,'' UT junior Cameron Tatum said. "Every team I've been on here, we've made it to the championship game, but we've never finished the mission.''
The Vols lost to Purdue, 73-72, in the title game of the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam in St. Thomas last season.
Two years, ago, at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., Gonzaga defeated UT, 83-74, in the finale.
The Vols played in the Legends Classic in Newark, N.J., in 2007 and got blown out by Texas, 97-78.
Villanova, which has won 17 consecutive games in the month of November dating back to 2007 - including Wednesday's 82-70 win over UCLA - is a formidable opponent.
"They have a great backcourt, and it's a very tough cover for us,'' Pearl said. "They are very good in transition, and we have struggled at times to get matched up. We better find those three guards.''
Senior guard Corey Fisher leads the Wildcats with an 18.4 points-per-game average and scored 26 in Villanova's win over the Bruins. Senior guard Corey Stokes leads the Wildcats' 3-point attack, hitting 13 of 33 (.393), and sophomore guard Maalik Wayns has a team-high 31 assists.
UCLA coach Ben Howland said the Bruins simply couldn't stop the Wildcats' three-headed monster.
"We were trying to slow them in transition and stay in front of the ball, which was really a big problem with their guards,'' said Howland, whose team never led and trailed by as many as 15 points.
"They were able to attack our bigs when they got by our guards. They don't turn it over a lot. They are very good at spreading you out, and they get to the line.''
Tennessee believes it could have an advantage inside, but only if the 6-foot-10, 260-pound Williams can hold his own with Wildcats sophomore post Mouphtaou Yarou (6-10, 250).
"It's going to be a tough assignment, but I think I'm ready for it,'' Williams said. "I've been working with Wayne Chism for four years, so I don't think there's a tougher post in the nation.''
The Vols might not face a tougher crowd, either.
Villanova, a Big East power from nearby Philadelphia, will enjoy a partisan crowd as well as having their cheerleaders and pep band on hand.
"It will have a road game feel for us,'' said Pearl, whose team has neither a pep band nor cheerleaders at Madison Square Garden. "It could elevate Villanova's play, but it should not detract from ours.
"We will have to continue to step up if we're going to take advantage of this great opportunity.''