published Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Wiedmer: Vols can make Final 4

Not much has gone wrong for Bruce Pearl since he first took over the Tennessee basketball program five years ago. The Vols have been to the NCAA Tournament every season, including this one. His first four years on the job he finished ahead of King Kong Kentucky in the SEC East four times. He’s so highly thought of by Lady Vols coach Pat Head Summitt that she routinely picks his brain for new strategies.

But when it comes to leaving a lasting impression on March Madness, Pearl has had his struggles. Like every Big Orange coach before him he's never gotten past the Sweet 16. Like every Big Orange coach before him, Pearl's teams seem to grow tired or timid or tormented when tenacity is most needed.

To be fair, much of this has been beyond his control. Of Pearl’s four previous tournament draws, only the 2007 South Regional bracket appeared helpful. And UT did lead top-seed Ohio State by 17 at halftime in the Sweet 16 before losing by a single point.

To show the possible impact of that defeat, the Buckeyes went all the way to the national championship game that spring before falling to defending champ Florida, a team the Vols had beaten during the regular season.

But every other year has left more questions than answers, especially last season, when UT lost to Oklahoma State in the opening round of the East Regional.

Yet to watch sixth seeded Tennessee dismantle Ohio in Saturday's Midwest Regional second round, then see second-seed Ohio State more or less struggle against undisciplined Georgia Tech on Sunday is to know the Vols may finally have their dream draw to reach the Final Four.

Take out the Buckeyes on Friday night in St. Louis and the Vols would only need to beat overachieving Northern Iowa or hobbled Michigan State on Sunday to reach the school's first-ever Final Four.

We repeat: The school's first … ever … Final … Four.

This seemed ridiculous 10 days ago, the Vols having just been blown to smithereens by Kentucky in an SEC Tournament semifinal. UT lost its composure that day on its way to losing to Big Blue by 29 points, the worst loss of Pearl's time in Knoxville.

And Kentucky just may be that good. The Wildcats certainly looked it in preposterously easy wins against East Tennessee State and Wake Forest.

But the Vols twin wins over San Diego State and Ohio may have actually been more impressive, if only because this team that looked so disjointed and dejected at the SEC tourney now seems dazzling and driven.

UT didn't so much survive San Diego State as the Vols wore them down. Then Pearl's coaching and UT's three seniors — Wayne Chism, Bobby Maze and J.P. Prince — pummeled Ohio.

Or as Ohio guard D.J. Cooper said after losing to UT, “It was frustrating playing against a great defensive team like that, a bunch of older guys.”

To be clear, Ohio isn't Ohio State, which may have the best player in the country in Evan Turner. But Prince can guard Turner, and it's still unclear if the smallish, depth-challenged Buckeyes have anybody who can stop Wayne Chism.

Beyond that, Ohio State coach Thad Matta's three games against Pearl haven't exactly been easy. He has a two-point win and a one-point win over the Vols in 2007 and a five-point loss in Knoxville the following season.

Said Pearl on Saturday, “We were a better team than Ohio and we played better. That's why we won. Are we better than our next two opponents? I don't know. The seeding would say maybe not.”

But as this tournament has shown time and time again, these seeds have meant nothing. What is clear, however, is that UT's January win over No. 1 Kansas told us more than we ever realized about both the Vols and Jayhawks, given that only one is still standing.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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March 22, 2010 at 10:55 a.m.
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