Wiedmer: Bradshaw feels good about Vols

Wiedmer: Bradshaw feels good about Vols

March 24th, 2010 by Mark Wiedmer in Opinion Columns

Dane Bradshaw needed little prompting to remember the last time Tennessee faced Ohio State in basketball's Sweet Sixteen.

"That was the Final Four that could have been," said Bradshaw, wistfully recalling the last game of his UT career, an 85-84 loss to the Buckeyes that ended the 2006-07 season.

"We had a 17-point lead at halftime. But we never felt comfortable. It's easier said than done to protect a lead like that against a team with that much NBA talent."

The Buckeyes had so much NBA talent that season that freshman center Greg Oden and freshman guard Mike Conley Jr. were among the first five picks in that summer's draft.

But before they traded March Madness for payday gladness, the twice had to escape Bradshaw and his Big Orange teammates, edging the Vols 68-66 in Columbus that January before nipping them by one in the South Regional semifinal.

"If we'd won that game we would have played Memphis -- which we'd already beaten pretty good (76-58) in Knoxville earlier in the year -- in the Elite Eight," Bradshaw said. "But we couldn't beat Ohio State."

That doesn't mean Bradshaw, who now works for Thunder Enterprises and resides in Knoxville, thinks this year's Vols can't beat the Buckeyes in their Midwest Regional semifinal Friday night in St. Louis.

"First of all, I'm not sure Ohio State's as good as they were back then," he said over his cell phone Tuesday afternoon. "Second, you've got to like the way we've been able to take a key player away from another team, really shut them down. If J.P. (Prince) can do that against Evan Turner, you'd have to feel like we've got a chance."

That's the push-shove focal point of this contest. Prince is widely regarded as one of the better on-ball defenders in college basketball. His long arms, lanky 6-foot-7 frame and deceptive quickness seem perfectly suited to locking down the 6-7 Turner, who leads OSU in points (20), rebounds (9.1) and assists (6.1) per game and is widely regarded as the favorite to win the Wooden Award.

"A lot of people question J.P.'s basketball IQ," Bradshaw said. "His basketball IQ is high. He's just willing to take a high risk for a high reward. But he's at his best when he's dedicated to using his length and keeping his opponent in front of him. Plus, J.P. enjoys the big stage. He knows how to raise his play for the biggest games."

Not that Ohio State coach Thad Matta believes only Prince can turn the tide in UT's favor.

"I think (Tennessee's) a lot like Georgia Tech," said Matta, referring to the team that OSU defeated 64-55 on Sunday to reach the round of 16. "They're long, athletic and can really get up and press defensively. They're very impressive."

It would be understandable for the Vols to press a bit against the Buckeyes, given that the UT program has never previously reached a regional final, much less the Final Four.

Yet win against Turner and the Buckeyes and the Vols would face the Northern Iowa-Michigan State winner for a spot in next week's Final Four in Indianapolis.

Quick to reference another former UT athlete who's fairly famous in Indy, Bradshaw said Big Orange basketball boss Bruce Pearl will have the Vols ready.

"It's kind of like having Peyton Manning at quarterback," said Bradshaw, who can't get to St. Louis this weekend but promises to make the Final Four if UT does. "With Bruce you always feel like you have a chance. When we beat Ohio on Saturday, it looked like we'd been preparing for them for six weeks."

Bradshaw believed the Vols had more than a chance against the Buckeyes in 2007 with Conley at the line for two free throws in a tie game and less than 10 seconds on the clock.

"We'd drawn up a play expecting him to make both free throws," Big Game Dane recalled. "But Conley missed the second, and in rebounding the basketball everything changed. The intended play was to get Oden away from the basket and drive the ball. Instead, Oden stayed in close and blocked Ramar Smith's shot at the buzzer."

So how many times has Bradshaw watched those final frustrating seconds against the Buckeyes?

With noticeable emotion he replied, "I will never watch a replay of that game as long as I live."