published Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Vols facing tough trail to SEC title

by Wes Rucker
  • photo
    Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl yells to his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010 in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee won 74-65. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

KNOXVILLE -- Bruce Pearl thinks his Tennessee basketball team just needs to "keep knocking on the door" at the Southeastern Conference tournament. Eventually, according to Pearl, the Volunteers will break down that door.

Recent history suggests they'll break their hands first.

Despite winning five more games than any SEC program the past five seasons, Tennessee hasn't won the conference tournament since 1979. Nine programs have won it since UT, and one of those -- South Carolina -- didn't join the league until 1992.

Only Vanderbilt has surpassed the Vols' futility, last hoisting the title trophy in 1951.

"We've had years where we've gone to this tournament and just not played very well, and we've had some years where we played OK," Pearl said. "But the bottom line is we haven't won it."

Some losses have stung more than others. The Vols capitalized on an easier road to the championship game last season and were heavy favorites to top Mississippi State for the title. Then they lost, 64-61.

"It was just a bad, bad day," UT senior wing J.P. Prince said. "We basically gave them that game."

Still, an optimist would note the progress the Vols have made in the SEC tournament. Two years ago they lost at the buzzer to Arkansas in a semifinal.

"Every year I've been here, we've gotten closer," junior center Brian Williams said. "If we just stay on that track, we'll win it this year."

Sounds good, but starting today against LSU (11-19, 2-14), the Vols (23-7, 11-5) must win four games in four days to earn the championship.

"Like seeding is important in the NCAA tournament, seeding is important in the SEC tournament," Pearl said. "I thought last year we had fairly favorable seeding -- a fairly favorable road -- and we didn't take full advantage of it. I don't see this road as favorable. I think this is a tougher road, but I think this is a team that has demonstrated a resilience through the regular season that maybe could serve us well come tournament time.

"That's my hope."

LSU simply hopes to extend its season. The Tigers have improved gradually under second-year coach Trent Johnson. They lost their first 12 league games but won two of the last four.

"In my opinion, they might be the hungriest team in the league coming into this tournament," Williams said. "This is the only way they can keep on playing, if they win this tournament. It's one and done for them."

Noting Tennessee's impressive win at Mississippi State last Saturday, Johnson called the Vols a "big, big challenge."

"This is the time of year when you want to be playing your best basketball, and it seems like Tennessee is," he added. "We're still managing to fight our way through some things and getting better, but we're certainly not playing pretty basketball, and we're certainly not playing efficient basketball.

"This is the time of year when we're in a spoiler role, and hopefully we can go into Nashville and compete at a high level and see what happens."

Sophomore guard Cameron Tatum said Pearl has told the team all week that LSU is "0-0 right now, just like we are."

"He's right, though," Tatum added. "Just about every team they've played this year, they're been in there and hung in the balance with them for most of the game, even on the road. It's not like a team that's just getting blown out every game. LSU is a tough, talented team.

"We can't overlook them. We can't overlook anybody."

And they won't, according to Williams.

"We're confident, and confidence can take you a long way," he said. "I don't think you can ever have enough confidence, but you can't be cocky. I don't think we're cocky enough to say we're better than everybody -- or anybody, really -- but we have the confidence to go into any game and win."

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