KNOXVILLE -- Bobby Maze is popular with his University of Tennessee men's basketball teammates, but even his closest friends joke about the senior point guard's flair for hyperbole.
Wing J.P. Prince, another UT senior, had no problem poking fun on the record.
"I love Bobby, but he can be a drama queen," Prince said earlier this season.
But tonight is serious by any sports-based definition of the word.
It's the NCAA tournament.
And the next loss for Maze, Prince and senior forward Wayne Chism will mark the end of their UT careers.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl talks with his players, including Skylar McBee, during a timeout against Alabama in an NCAA college basketball game in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Vols will play in the NCAA tournament. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
So at least for once, Prince's verbiage matched Maze's.
"You just have to leave it all on the floor," the typically laid-back Prince said. "You have to give your best effort, so win or lose, you can say you put it all out there for your last game.
"And any game from here on out could be my last game."
No. 11 seed San Diego State (25-8) has become a chic pick to upset the No. 6 seeded Volunteers (25-8) in tonight's 10 p.m. game from Providence, R.I.
The Mountain West Conference tournament champion Aztecs were considered bracket-busters literally seconds after their matchup with UT was announced on Sunday. CBS analyst Seth Davis quickly opined as much, and countless others have agreed.
Even the NCAA's official Web site put the Vols on "upset alert" this week.
"People are doubting and disliking Tennessee like crazy, man," Maze said. "We're the only team that beat the No. 1 and No. 2 teams this year (Kansas and Kentucky), so it's interesting that everybody's hating on us like that."
The Vols have opted to play the traditional disrespect card on top of their already stacked emotional deck, compliments of last season's first-round NCAA loss to Oklahoma State.
"As long as I live, I will never forget that bus ride back from Ohio after that game," Maze said. "That can't happen again, because as a senior, it would be even worse."
UT entered last season's NCAA tournament after a last-second, Southeastern Conference tournament championship game loss to Mississippi State. For all the success of Coach Bruce Pearl's first three seasons, his fourth was the first that ended with two consecutive losses.
"We didn't get to stay for the weekend last year, and we didn't get to play in the game to go to the Sweet Sixteen," Pearl said. "It was a bitter way to end the season, with two straight losses. We lost to Mississippi State by three, and that was a last possession-game, and then we play Oklahoma State and lose in a last-possession game. We've won most of the last-possession games this year, but I clearly think that it's not a way we want to go out, and I do think we'll use it as motivation, because it stuck with us a while."
"We didn't talk Oklahoma State much during the course of the year, but I think we'll talk about it now."
That should tell you plenty about Pearl's worries regarding his team's mindset. Even 25-win teams can lose confidence from 29-point losses like the one UT suffered to archrival Kentucky last week.
"We played so poorly, so yes, there's no question I have a challenge this week getting my basketball team to feel better about itself," Pearl said. "There would be something wrong with them if they weren't still in pain or embarrassed by the deficit, but one of the things I did (Sunday) was I showed them clearly in the first half, that a lot of it was us, and not the opponent -- so we can fix it, and we're in control of that. ... When we defend and we rebound, we win. And we didn't defend or rebound at Kentucky."
But it won't happen again tonight.
The Vols don't think so, anyway.
"We've been through too much this year to go out in one game," Chism said. "We're not going out in one game."
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