Vols receive No.9 seed; will play Michigan in NCAA tournament
Bruce Pearl’s NCAA tournament message to his players was short and to the point.
“We’ve got to believe,’’ the Tennessee men’s basketball coach said following Sunday afternoon’s practice. “Let’s make our own history.’’
UT did just that a couple of hours later when it received a school-record sixth consecutive NCAA tournament berth.
Tennessee (19-14) is seeded No. 9 and will play No. 8-seeded Michigan (20-13) on Friday (TV: truTV, 12:40 p.m.) at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C., in the West Region.
“I thought we’d get between a No. 8 and No. 10 seed,’’ Pearl said. “I’m just really, really pleased to be in.’’
The Vols reached the Elite Eight last season for the first time in school history.
“I believe if your team makes the NCAA tournament, regardless of the ups and downs, that team should be celebrated,’’ Pearl said. “How this team finishes will also matter to everybody.’’
Tennessee’s possible second-round match up might not be so enticing, depending on your point of view.
Defending national champion Duke (30-4) likely will await the winner of the UT-Michigan game on Sunday.
The Blue Devils, a No. 1 seed and the freshly crowned Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champions, open against No. 16 Hampton (24-8) of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference on Friday.
“We can’t afford to look past Michigan; they beat Michigan State twice this year, and that tells you everything you need to know,’’ Vols junior Scotty Hopson said. “But it would be awesome to play Duke; that would be a big stage for us.’’
Tennessee’s last two performances under the bright lights of Time Warner Cable Arena have resulted in dark losses.
The Vols suffered one of the most embarrassing setbacks in Pearl’s six seasons at UT, falling to Charlotte, 49-48, earlier this season on Dec. 17, 2010.
UT was ranked No. 7 at the time, and the loss was Pearl’s first with the Vols to a team with a losing record. The 49ers finished the season 10-20.
UT’s previous trip to Time Warner Cable Arena was perhaps more painful. Louisville ended arguably the best season in school history by eliminating the Vols from the 2008 NCAA tournament with a 79-60 victory in the Sweet 16.
“We haven’t won in that building during my career, and we shot the worst percentages there ever,’’ UT senior center Brian Williams said. “Hopefully, that will change.’’
The 2008 team, which reached the school’s first No. 1 ranking and had the No. 1 RPI entering the postseason, made 19 of 56 shots (33.9 percent) against the Cardinals, including five of 20 from beyond the 3-point arc.
UT shot slightly better in its loss to Charlotte, making 22 of 63 (34.9 percent) and was 2-of-17 shooting on 3-point attempts.
The Vols are 5-8 all-time in the city of Charlotte, dropping four of the past five dating back to 1992.
“We understand we can play better in that gym and shoot better in that gym,’’ Steven Pearl said. “We know the arena background and the layout.’’
UT is 5-4 all-time against Michigan, but the teams have not met since 1985, when UT dropped an 87-52 decision in Ann Arbor.
Bruce Pearl said he didn’t know much off hand about Michigan, but he said it’s a very good shooting team.
“Michigan is a tough team, and a tested team, they make about eight 3s a game,’’ Bruce Pearl said. “I’d say Kentucky is the one team that shoots it as well as they do in our league.
“I would imagine we’ll see some 1-3-1 (zone) . . . and we’ll see a smart man-to-man. (Michigan coach) John Beilein is a brilliant tactician . . . a coach’s coach. It won’t take him very long to figure out what our strengths and weaknesses are.’’
The Wolverines have won seven of their past 10 games, and their 8.09 made 3-point shots per game ranked second in the Big Ten.
Bruce Pearl said the Vols’ biggest challenge is within themselves.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been on the same page,’’ Bruce Pearl said. “Our big focus right now is on us.’’
UT is one of five SEC teams to make it into this season’s NCAA tournament. The other four — Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Georgia — also are from the Eastern Division.
“I said before the season five teams from the East would get in,’’ Bruce Pearl said. “That just shows you how tough the league is.’’
The Vols played 18 games against NCAA tournament teams this season, finishing with a 9-9 record.
“I think that shows we’re capable,’’ Bruce Pearl said. “We’ve had our moments, and we’re going to need more of them.’’
Notebook: Michigan has opened as a one-point favorite over Tennessee. . . . The winner of UT’s Charlotte bracket advances to the Sweet 16 in Anaheim, Calif.