DAYTON, Ohio — It doesn’t have to take long to create a monster. Bruce Pearl did it in less than four seasons with the Tennessee men’s basketball program.
The Volunteers had missed four consecutive NCAA tournaments when Pearl arrived in 2005, and they haven’t missed one since. They’ve never gone one-and-done, either, advancing to the second round in 2006 and the Sweet 16 two consecutive seasons.
But for the first time under Pearl, they enter March Madness as perceived underachievers.
The Vols were ranked No. 8 in the national polls earlier this season, yet they open this tournament against a No. 8 seed. As a 9 seed, they weren’t considered first-round favorites by the selection committee.
“We know the road to advance is probably as challenging as any we’ve faced,” Pearl said Thursday afternoon at the University of Dayton Arena.
Las Vegas considers UT (21-12) a favorite over Oklahoma State (22-11), but the Cowboys are clearly a cut above mid-major conference programs Winthrop, Long Beach State and American University — the Vols’ past three NCAA first-round foes.
“This first-round game will be the toughest first-round game that I’ve had since I was probably back in Wisconsin-Milwaukee, when we had to open up against Alabama or Notre Dame,” Pearl said. “But I think the approach is very, very much the same.”
Oklahoma State played a schedule similar in toughness to UT’s, according to computer rankings.
Pearl and his players have stuck to the company line all week. They’ve stood on the court in Knoxville and sat behind microphones in Ohio and said, with straight faces, that their mindsets haven’t changed.
“We just want to stay together, regardless of our seed,” junior forward Tyler Smith said. “If we were like a 2 last year, or this year like a 9, we’ve still got to play together regardless of our seed. It’s just a tougher opponent on us this time. But last year we had hard games, too.
“Every team here can get beat. That’s what it comes down to — either win or go home.”
Pearl has created a program that’s not expected to go home after one game, and he has arguably the biggest, most talented roster he’s ever coached. But he loves the underdog card.
“I think our guys have great respect for their personnel and what they do ... and I know that Oklahoma State’s excited about playing Tennessee,” Pearl said. “They’ll know the challenges of trying to advance, and then the winner gets one of the top teams in the country. And that’s when you start to get into that ‘one shining moment’ stuff, where it’s ‘Can Oklahoma State or Tennessee pull off what would be a huge upset (against top-seeded Pittsburgh)?’
“Be careful what you wish for, of course, but still that’s why we’re in this tournament, to try to make something special happen.”
Two years ago, the No. 5 seed Vols beat 4 seed Virginia in the second round and nearly shocked top-seeded Ohio State in the Sweet 16. And Pearl still gets emotional when discussing his 2005 UW-Milwaukee squad that recorded two opening-weekend stunners.
Most of the Vols were highly recruited, and some have had the spotlight since their early teens.
“We know exactly what we’re capable of if we handle our business,” J.P. Prince said. “I think everybody else knows that, too. And if they don’t, hopefully they’ll see it in this tournament.”
Pearl’s program has put itself in this pressure-filled position, and its rabid fan base expects excellence.
“I don’t think we feel any less pressure because we’re the 9, and I honestly don’t think our kids feel any different,” Pearl said. “Maybe we should, but I just don’t. If we don’t win it, we’ll be really disappointed.”