Tennessee center Brian Williams (33) reacts after losing to Florida at the Southeastern Conference tournament on Friday in Atlanta. Florida won 85-74. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
KNOXVILLE — Brian Williams boarded a bus to Charlotte on Wednesday afternoon that would take him to what will be his final NCAA tournament at Tennessee.
For the Volunteers’ senior center, though, it’s just like every other road trip he’s taken during his career.
“It hasn’t dawned on me yet,” said the 6-foot-10 Williams. “I don’t think it’s going to dawn on me until it actually happens. I’m just worried about playing a basketball game, and it’s just like any other basketball game. If you take it any different, that’s when nerves and things like that come in as factors.
“If you [do], [you] let the tension get to you. It’s going to a different atmosphere, obviously. More cameras and more TV time, but I’m used to that by now. I take it like another basketball game.”
Williams’ size figures to be a key role in how ninth-seeded UT handles undersized eighth-seeded Michigan when the teams face off on Friday afternoon. But the biggest factor for a team that’s not won consecutive games since early February and lost seven of its last 11 games is showing up and playing to the potential in a 7-0 season-opening stretch.
“We’re going to have to — it’s all or nothing now,” said freshman forward Tobias Harris. “It’s been a struggle, but when we do play together and when we do just play well, we’re a really tough team to beat. Hopefully it clicks on and hopefully we get it going.”
It’s even more important for UT’s seniors, a group that had their hands in the Vols’ historic run to last year’s Elite Eight. That their college basketball careers could end at some point in Charlotte certainly isn’t lost on them.
“I’m just trying to take it day by day, knowing that any day could be your last practice or the last game of the season, so to speak,” senior point guard Melvin Goins said. “I’m going in with that mindset of trying to get [the] energy level up and get my team focused. That’s what I’ve tried to do in practice, [bring] intensity and bring that energy and try to lead over my team.”
Said coach Bruce Pearl: “I think our veterans have all been very verbal. Our guys understand that in order to advance at this time of the year, we have to have [guys] step up and elevated play.”
Playing in an NCAA tournament game is nothing new for anyone on UT’s roster except the Vols’ freshmen. For Michigan, though, only guards Stu Douglass and Zack Novak — both starters on the Wolverines’ 2009 tournament team that beat Clemson in the first round and lost to Oklahoma in the second as a No. 10 seed — have played in the tournament.
Williams said UT’s experience advantage won’t help them win Friday’s game.
“I doesn’t matter right now,” he said. “I don’t think none of that becomes a factor when you’re playing basketball anymore. It’s one-and-done and everybody’s playing with their lives on the line. It’s just whoever wants it more.”
The Wolverines made their excitement evident when the brackets were released on Sunday. Michigan’s players leapt out of chairs in their home gym when their named popped up on the television screen.
The Vols’ reaction was much more subdued, though as Goins said that’s the expected reaction for a program that’s come to expect playing in the NCAA tournament on an annual basis.
“Our guys need to get excited for this opportunity, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be ready to go,” Goins said. “This is very special, a very special thing. We’re blessed to be a part of it. We don’t need to take it for granted and we need to be well prepared.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...