KNOXVILLE -- The Sweet Sixteen hasn't been the point of no return for the Tennessee men's basketball team.
It's been the point of return to Knoxville.
Sixth-seeded UT will take the floor tonight in St. Louis against second-seeded Ohio State, and it will mark the Volunteers' fourth regional semifinal in 11 seasons -- and their third in four seasons.
The first three were all losses.
"We've been good at getting there, but that's about it," UT senior forward Wayne Chism said. "It's time to go there and win, and that's what we're focused on doing. I'm sick of getting here and losing. It's time to stop all of that.
"We need to get another step closer. Got to."
The Buckeyes (29-7) are another formidable Sweet Sixteen for foe the Vols (27-8). Ohio State trailed by 20 points in the second half to UT in a 2007 regional semifinal, but star big man Greg Oden swatted a shot from then-freshman point guard Ramar Smith at the buzzer to cement the Buckeyes' stunning comeback.
"Getting to play them again in the Sweet Sixteen is pretty sweet. I'll say that," Chism said. "We can't let up against these guys. We just can't. We know what happens when you let up against them.
"They're tough, and they'll get you back."
But these Vols claim they're different. They say they're finally solid enough with half-court defense and rebounding to advance to the program's first Elite Eight.
"All I can say about this game is it's going to come down to defense and rebounding," senior point guard Bobby Maze said. "There's nothing else I can say to talk about this game other than defense and rebounding is the key. If we're going to win this basketball game, that's what we have to do.
"Nobody thinks we can, but we know what we can do. We know we can beat anybody."
UT players and coaches might not be the only ones thinking they can win tonight, but they're definitely in the minority. The Buckeyes have been listed as solid favorites all week, and The Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy wrote that UT has the worst chance of any Sweet Sixteen team to win the national championship.
The Vols have drawn nearly as much motivation from DeCourcy's column as they did from CBS analyst Seth Davis's Selection Sunday comment that UT would lose its first-round matchup with San Diego State.
"We've been doubted from the jump," Vols sophomore guard Scotty Hopson said. "We were supposed to be the first upset of the tournament. We took that as motivation, and we battled back from that and got two wins. This is just more for the motivation factor. They're just fueling our fire. We're pumped up and ready to work and ready to play on Friday.
"Now they're saying the wins we had were just the wins we were supposed to have. They felt like San Diego State and Ohio -- now they're saying we were just better than those teams. But those are two great teams. I definitely don't feel like we're the last of the 16 teams left, but that's definitely where they're ranking us right now. All you can do is play the cards you were dealt, and ... we're going to play them right.
"I'm tired of everybody saying Ohio was easy. Ask Georgetown how easy Ohio was. We don't get credit for anything."
Maze said the Vols have "more than enough confidence to make all these people quit talking."
"When I decided to come here, I thought we'd get here both years," he added. "Last year, I came here to play for a national championship, so my expectations were already that high. This is where I expected to be -- the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight and the Final Four. Right now, in my eyes, we've only done what we're supposed to do. A lot of people are saying, 'You're doing well. We're surprised.' Man, I ain't surprised. I thought all along we were one of the better teams in the country. Now we get a chance to showcase that.
"Everybody's saying we had two games that maybe were a little easier. Now we're going to play against a No. 2 seed, and we'll see what happens there. Hopefully we can finally make all these people quit talking.
"When we match up with everybody this week, they'll see how 16 we are."
External motivation only adds to the drive coach Bruce Pearl and his players have felt all season.
Pearl admits to dreaming occasionally of the feeling he'll get when UT gets past the point where it typically returns to Knoxville.
"Every game we win from here on out, we're making history," Pearl told his players this week. "Not many people get that kind of opportunity, but we do. It's right there in front of us. We've just got to take it."
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