Thursday night the Tennessee Volunteers will square off with the No. 1 seed Ohio State Buckeyes in a Sweet Sixteen rematch in San Antonio. The Vols held the lead for much of the second half during their 68-66 loss at Ohio State in January, but suffered defeat at the hands of senior Ron Lewis’s last second three-pointer.
The fact that Tennessee almost pulled out a victory in Columbus should give the Volunteers confidence, but guard JaJuan Smith knows that a lot can change over the course of a season.
"I think both teams got better since the last meeting. It is going to be a great challenge,” Smith said.
The Vols have gained strength off the strong play of their young players. The freshmen are experiencing the NCAA tournament for the first time, which can often lead to nervous performances. However, Ramar Smith contributed 24 points in the team’s first game, and Wayne Chism’s hot start against Virginia helped the Volunteers in a big way.
"The upperclassmen have helped us to make the transition," freshman forward Duke Crews said.
Crews and Chism will once again have to deal with freshman sensation Greg Oden.
Oden has been slowly improving over the season as he has gotten more movement from his injured right wrist. His presence alone allows the Buckeye guards to get better penetration and shots. One of those guards is Mike Conley Jr., who led the team during the overtime period in his last game against Xavier. Though he hasn’t gotten the publicity as other fresman around the country like Oden and Texas’s Kevin Durant, he is quick, a good decision maker and may be the X-factor in today’s game.
Another player to keep an eye on for Ohio State is of course Lewis. If Tennessee fans watched the senior guard hit the game-tying three-point shot at the buzzer against Xavier last week, then they probably had flashbacks to a similar game-winning three-pointer against Tennessee from the same spot on the court.
The Volunteers know that they will be an underdog today, but that will not scare them off.
"Coming into the season, this is where we expected to be," Crews said. Two years ago, the Volunteer basketball players were sitting on their couches with the rest of America watching as the spectacle of March Madness played out. They were not even given an invitation to the NIT that year. Last season, however, something changed.
A makeover was given to Tennessee basketball in the form of head coach Bruce Pearl. Pearl is a player’s coach, and he has found a way to combine his fast-paced style and press defense to a Tennessee team that has not seen this much success in an NCAA tournament in a long time.
Nobody understands the change more than the lone senior Dane Bradshaw.
“I take pride in being one of the guys who has been through the struggle first, to enjoy the success,” Bradshaw said. “The way we have had to rebuild to get to the Sweet Sixteen is special.”
Now coach Pearl has the team on the brink of Volunteer history with the Elite Eight in sight. In the Vols’ opening-round game against Long Beach State, Tennessee came out and executed its plays to perfection; they were also hitting their outside shots. Long Beach State is a team that could have given other teams fits that do not score the ball as well as Tennessee does. However, they tried to play the Volunteers’ game and eventually ran out of gas.
In the second round game, Virginia guard J.R. Reynolds looked like he would single-handedly knock the Volunteers out in the second round with his hot start. However, thanks to a twisted ankle some clutch free-throw shooting from Chris Lofton, Tennessee moved on to the Sweet Sixteen.