ST. LOUIS -- Rebounding plus defense equals Final Four.
Strip away the warm and fuzzy storyline of Bruce Pearl's Tennessee Volunteers reaching their first-ever NCAA tournament regional final; ignore the similarly stirring angle of Michigan State surviving and advancing without injured point guard Kalin Lucas. The real key to this afternoon's Midwest regional final always returns to the above formula.
"Defense and rebounding is going to win this game," Pearl said Saturday. "If we can defend and rebound, we'll be OK. If we come out intimidated, like I think we were early against Ohio State, well ..."
That's why they play the game. Because you never know how a team will respond from one game to the next. Especially in this year's tournament.
But the emphasis -- particularly where sixth-seeded Tennessee is concerned -- is clearly on defense and rebounding, which Pearl and the Vols referred to no fewer than eight times in their group news conference, perhaps because the Spartans outrebound their opponents by almost nine a game while the Vols have been outrebounded by 1.2 rebounds a game.
"The statistics don't lie," UT point guard Bobby Maze said. "But when you're out there on the floor, it's been proven throughout this tournament that the team that plays hardest, the most physical, defends best and rebounds, wins the basketball game."
And though Michigan State has outrebounded two of its first three tourney opponents, UT has done the same, including an overwhelming 41-29 cushion in Friday night's 76-73 victory over Ohio State.
"I think we have a pretty good idea of what they do," MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "It's stopping what they do that's the problem."
To that end, Tennessee (28-8) intends to make the Spartans (27-8) fight for every rebound and shot.
"It's going to take the whole team to rebound at every position," UT senior guard J.P. Prince said. "We know the guards also have to come down and help get those boards."
If any single phrase is interchangeable regarding the Spartans and the Vols, it may be "whole team."
These are teams with deep benches and versatile athletes capable of playing both offense and defense at a high level. But they also are teams that have overcome great adversity to reach this defining moment between a good season and a great one.
For Tennessee it was a self-inflicted wound on New Year's Day, when four Vols were arrested for gun, alcohol and drug possession while joy-riding around Knoxville. Three eventually returned, and that trio of sharpshooter Cameron Tatum, point guard Melvin Goins and center Brian Williams may be the biggest reason UT is on the verge of reaching its first Final Four.
But if the Vols had only themselves to blame for their troubles, the Spartans have spent the past week attempting to overcome the loss of Lucas, who injured his Achilles' tendon last weekend and is out for the rest of the tourney.
"After the Maryland game, when Kalin went down, I think that was a big turnaround for this team," said Korie Lucious, the sophomore who's replaced Lucas in the lineup. "We all just made a commitment to rally around each other and just play together as a team. And we all just figured that if we come together as one, as a family, we can do anything."
From a slightly different perspective, UT senior forward Wayne Chism said the suspensions and dismissal of Tyler Smith united the Vols.
"From that point, everything we did was for Tyler and Eman (Emmanuel Negedu, who was forced to sit out the season with a heart condition)," Chism said. "Those are our teammates, we're family and we think of them every day."
Izzo was impressed by how Pearl's Vols handled their early January troubles.
"Adversity normally makes you stronger or it kills you," Izzo said. "You almost never stay the same. And I think that it takes great leadership by the coach and players to weather that storm. So I take my hat off to Bruce on that. He did a great job. I don't know all the particulars about what happened, but I do know this: It could have killed some teams, but he made it into something that he'll be able to use for years to come and those players will be able to use for years to come."
Still, when the Midwest title game begins at 2:20 this afternoon, the emotional storylines will give way to rebounding, defense and shot-making, the way most games do.
"It's nothing we haven't necessarily seen before with the exception of the tenacity with which Michigan State rebounds," Pearl said. "If they can't get it, they keep it alive. If they can't keep it alive, they knock you down trying to keep it alive."
And if UT can't keep the Spartans from keeping it alive, the Vols could have a tough time not being knocked out of the tournament.