After three NCAA Tournament victories, the Tennessee Volunteers will look to prove that the basketball program has effectively rebounded from some previous struggles. The Volunteers’ next opponent is the same team that ended their last great era.
When Tennessee met Michigan in the second round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament in Charlotte, N.C., the Wolverines easily won, 75-45. It was Michigan’s second tournament victory under then-fourth year head coach John Beilen, and a major boost for a program in transition after a long stretch of disappointing seasons.
But for Tennessee, the loss was the end of the Bruce Pearl Era. The popular coach was fired soon after the game amidst an NCAA investigation into the program, leaving Tennessee in need of repairs after six consecutive tournament appearances, including the 2010 Elite Eight.
And after two consecutive NIT appearances, it looked like Tennessee was heading for a third-straight disappointing season.
That was until late-February rolled around.
After the Vols fell to Texas A&M on Feb. 22 to fall to 16-11 and 7-7 in the SEC, Tennessee’s tournament chances appeared to be in major jeopardy. But the Vols would win four straight games to end the regular season. In the SEC Tournament, Tennessee blew out South Carolina before barely falling to the No. 1 team in the country, the Florida Gators.
That was enough to put Tennessee as one of the first four teams into the tournament, which gave them a play-in game against Iowa for the 11-seed in the Midwest region.
After defeating the Hawkeyes, 78-65, the Vols upset No. 6 seed UMass 86-67 before defeating Cinderella-team Mercer, 83-63, for their third win in the opening week of the tournament.
“NIT two straight years, I guess that's what you'd call starting from the bottom,” junior forward Jarnell Stokes said. “A lot of people doubted us, and that just makes the ride much better.”
After winning their first three tournament games by a combined 52 points, Tennessee and Dayton share the title of the lowest seeds remaining, as both were No. 11 seeds.
Now, the Vols will face No. 2 seed Michigan on Friday in Indianapolis for a chance to advance to the Elite Eight.
The Volunteers have looked strong inside through their first three games of the NCAA Tournament, as they’ve dominated opponents on the glass rebounding. Against Mercer, Stokes set a new Tennessee NCAA tournament record with 18 rebounds, while also adding 17 points. Meanwhile, Josh Richardson had a career-high 26 points and Antonio Barton scored 18.
After the SEC was criticized this season for lacking depth after top-overall seed Florida, only three teams, the Vols, Gators and Kentucky, made the NCAA Tournament. But after Kentucky’s wins over Kansas State and Wichita State, and Florida’s wins over Albany and Pittsburgh, all three have now advanced to the Sweet 16. This marks the first time since 2007 the SEC has had three teams make it this far in the tournament.
“I've been hearing that the SEC has been a football conference for a long time but I don't know how you can still say that when you've got three SEC schools in the Sweet 16,” Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said.
If Tennessee advances past Michigan, the Vols will face either Kentucky or Louisville. In their lone matchup this season, Kentucky defeated Tennessee in Lexington, 74-66.
Time: 7:15 p.m. EST
TV Channel: CBS
Online Stream Info: A live online stream can be viewed at NCAA March Madness Live here.
Prediction: Michigan over Tennessee, 78-71
An IB Times Staff Reporter contributed to this report.