KNOXVILLE - The injury wasn't anything new to Brian Williams.
The Tennessee center certainly wishes his back had cooperated through the end of his senior season, but the condition kept him out of the Volunteers' last two games.
"It's been hurting me since freshman year," the 6-foot-10 Williams said after participating in the Volunteers' light practice Monday afternoon. "It comes back off and on, and it flared up again. It's just one of those things.
"It's tough, that being my last game at Thompson-Boling with a Tennessee jersey on, and obviously watching the game I [saw] things that I could have helped the team on, especially defensive and offensive rebounds."
Williams, the Vols' leading rebounder, could have helped them secure three defensive rebounds late in Sunday's loss to Kentucky, which relegated UT to a fifth-place finish in the East Division and a first-round Southeastern Conference game Thursday against Arkansas in Atlanta.
UT was outrebounded by seven and eight in the two games Williams missed after averaging nearly five more rebounds than their opponents through 14 SEC games.
"He's our best rebounder - he's our biggest big man on the floor - so without him it was tough for us rebounding-wise," wing Cameron Tatum said. "I think having him back should put us at more of an advantage on the rebounding."
Williams said the problem with his back was a combination of ills, from tightness and soreness to spasms. He tried heating, stretching and even cortisone shots to ease the pain, but it bothered him even in walking. He'll know more about his status for Thursday after UT goes through a contact practice today.
"I'm sore right now," he said, "but I'm going to have to get in playing shape quick. We lifted and got some shots and I'm sore, so it's just depending on how I take it. It's going to be tough, but I'm ready for it. It's my last season, my last go-around, so it's all out there.
"We've still got business to take care of. I'm glad I'm back, and I think my teammates are glad I'm back."
NCAA tourney talk
Most projections still have UT receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament on the strength of its No. 36 ranking in the Ratings Percentage Index, eight wins against teams in the top 50 of those ratings and a top-five strength of schedule.
"I think the math puts us in there, but I don't want to leave it up to that," coach Bruce Pearl said. "The bottom line is if we continue to win, we help ourselves. If we don't, we put ourselves in position where we leave it to chance."
The Vols can reach the tournament for the sixth year in a row for the first time.
"For me, going to the tournament six years in a row would probably mean as much to me as our first Elite Eight appearance a year ago," Pearl said. "That's another one that I don't know everyone feels that way. Getting to the Elite Eight is a big deal, but still, that's winning three games.
"Going to the NCAA tournament - if we can - for six years in a row speaks to our program and the consistency. We've graduated a lot of different guys and maintained the ability to be competitive."
Said guard Scotty Hopson: "I expected to make the tournament each and every year. That's why I signed with Tennessee. Going far is obviously what I want to do, so getting a better seed and trying to go as deep into the tournament as I possibly can is what I'm looking forward to."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrownTFP