Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl directs his team against Michigan State during the first half of the NCAA Midwest Regional college basketball championship game Sunday in St. Louis. Tennessee lost 70-69. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
One-point-eight seconds will be tough for University of Tennessee basketball fans to shake for years to come. But for that wisp of time, the Vols would have forced overtime against Michigan State in the Midwest Regional final Sunday instead of losing 70-69 in regulation.
And as UT coach Bruce Pearl noted after the loss, "We liked our chances in overtime."
But overtime never happened and the Vols' terrific and tumultuous season disappeared with it, the 28-9 final record including the second-most wins in school history.
But difficult though that Elite Eight loss was -- especially coming as it did on a single Michigan State free throw that many Vols fans always will believe followed a bad call -- it didn't take Pearl long to look ahead to next season.
"We've got some great kids coming in," he said. "We're going to be a good basketball team again next year. We're very blessed."
Those great kids include 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward Tobias Harris of Dix Hills, N.Y. Rated the nation's top power forward by Rivals.com, Harris is reportedly as skilled in the classroom as on the court, where he has averaged 25.3 points and 10 rebounds a game.
He'll be joined by two guards from Georgia: 6-6 Jordan McRae of Liberty County High School and 6-1 Trae Golden of Powder Springs. McRae is considered one of the top 10 shooting guards in the 2010 recruiting class, and Golden is the No. 55 prospect overall nationally.
In fact, Big Orange fans can get a glimpse of Harris in the McDonald's All-America game this Wednesday at 8 p.m. (ESPN). He'll also play in the Jordan Brand All-American game at Madison Square Garden on April 17.
Yet the best reason for Big Orange fans to feel good about next season may be that Golden, Harris and McRae won't be expected to carry the load so much as lighten it for a returning class that will include starters Scotty Hopson and Brian Williams, quicksilver reserve point guard Melvin Goins, fellow reserve guard Josh Bone, sharpshooter Cameron Tatum, high-jumping Kenny Hall and versatile Renaldo Woolridge, who hit four 3-pointers in the stunning victory over then-No. 1 Kansas in January.
"I'm proud of my team and the program," said departing senior J.P. Prince. "We achieved a lot."
Added fellow senior Wayne Chism: "I expect the guys who are coming back to build on what we started. I have no doubt they're going to keep this going."
It always starts somewhere. Because Chism was Pearl's first big-time recruit, it makes some sense that his final season produced the school's first-ever trip to the Elite Eight. After transferring from Arizona, Memphis native Prince became the best lock-down defender in the SEC this winter. Throw in Maze, who outplayed Wooden Award candidate Sherron Collins in the Kansas game, and you had the kind of talent and leadership usually needed at the top to succeed in March.
But that leadership often has a way of transferring down to those left behind.
"This was a great season," Bone said. "We have some guys back next year and expect to have a great team again, but we have to work hard and move forward. It's as simple as that."
UT Falls in NCAA TourneyTennessee's J.P. Prince (30) dunks against Michigan State during the first half of the NCAA Midwest Regional college basketball championship game Sunday in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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 ...