Elite 8 Baby!

The Vol’s have finally done it. For the first time in the 101 year history of the program the Vol’s have advanced past the sweet sixteen. This was not only a great game to watch but it was an intense battle on the court and the Vol’s came out victorious in no small part due to the work of its seniors.

Team leader Wayne Chism dominated in the second half and JP Prince provided great defense on the # 1 player in the nation, forcing Evan Turner to turn the ball over 6 times and shoot 1-6 in the last 7:52.

Junior Brian Williams stepped up and tipped in a ball with 35.9 seconds left to give Tennessee the lead but it was Senior Bobby Maze who drained two free throw attempts with 12.9 seconds left that sealed the deal. Head Coach Bruce Pearl said after the game, “Anytime you have Bobby at the line with the game on the line, I’ll take that.”

His team mates agreed as Prince said, “He’s our best free throw shooter and I knew he was going to come through for us. I also knew if he missed those shots his mom would kill him. His mom is always on him, especially about his free throws.”

Maze himself said after the game, “Honestly there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I was going to make those two free throws.”

J.P.’s pressure on Turner made sure that Bobby’s work was not for naught when he blocked a shot with a second left on the clock. “You’ve got to make the block; you have to contest the shot. He was going to have to earn it,” Prince said later. Prince also had 2 steals in the final two minutes.

His job of guarding Turner would seem to be a tough task to most, as Turner had 31 points in the game (21 of which came after halftime), but Prince, as an emerging play maker for the Vols during tourney play, was confident. He is averaging 15.7 ppg during Tourney play while also pulling down four rebounds and dishing out 3.3 assists.

This emergence that Prince is having starts with Prince’s willingness to accept a challenge. And Bruce Pearl issued just that challenge.

“Whatever the coach tells me to do, he knows I love to accept those challenges, and just guarding great players, that’s something I love to do, because you want to play against the best and do your best to shut them down,” Prince says of his mindset in stopping gifted offensive players.

“But it’s just something you gotta watch a lot of film on, no matter who I’m guarding. Just gotta learn their tendencies and be ready for the challenge, and use your toughness because sometimes the guys are bigger and stronger than me but sometimes you have to outsmart them and beat them to the spot.”

Here is what Prince said on guarding Turner specifically.

“I knew that the offense was only going to get us so far and we were going to have stop Turner at the end. Coach told me he wasn’t going to keep me on him the whole game because of fatigue, but he told me I was going to have to take him the last five minutes. I gave it all I had out there.”

Maze recounts Prince pulling him to the side with two minutes left to go and saying, “I’m not going to take another shot. I’m tired and going to save my energy and play the best defense I’ve ever played.” Prince ended up doing just that. Prince said, “I know those last two minutes I was going to make them work. I knew nobody wanted it more than I did.”

Evan Turner says, “They got confident and started making plays. They played out of their minds and that was it.”

Prince, Williams, and Chism all played a lot of minutes and all three came up huge for the Vol’s with big plays. But it wasn’t just the Vols playing well that caused us to win, Mr. Turner. Depth definitely was a key factor in this game as Ohio State had to consistently face fresh bodies coming of the well stocked Tennessee bench even though the Vol’s bench only outscored them 18-13.

Bruce made sure everyone knew this was a factor in his post game press conference.

“In the intensity of this game, I thought fatigue was a factor in the second half. In the second half, our defense, our depth, and our seniors really made a huge difference. Guys that wanted to take this Tennessee Basketball Program to a place it’s never been.”

“We always talk about our ten or eleven guys versus their six or seven or eight, depending on what the rotations are. That’s not new. Sure kids would like to play more minutes. Of course they would. They want to be on the floor. They don’t want to be on the bench.”

“I talked to the guys. I said, ‘J.P., do you want to play 40 minutes of this game? Do you want Cameron not to play? I want you to answer that question. Tonight you can play 40 and Cameron can sit. Are you OK with that?’ And you know what he said? J.P said, ‘No, I’m not.’ Anyway, here’s what I’m getting to. Sure, kids would like to play more minutes. They all would. They don’t want to sit the bench. So I’ve got to constantly sell the concept that we’ll play eight or nine guys. I just think it makes for better chemistry.”

“Again it was something Tom Davis taught me, and it’s something I’ve always stuck with. It’s something that I try to encourage younger coaches to try to do. We all have five or six guys that are better than the other three or four. We all do. And you just play them. You’ve got to, in a order to develop talent, and in order to develop a bench, you’ve got to play them.”

William’s noted that this was definitely true by saying, “Every time there was a time out they were exhausted. We would see it and we kept telling each other that they were tired and we had to keep going at them. Like coach said, it was our ten or eleven against their six and I think that’s why we prevailed in the end.”

One such benefactor of this depth was Josh Bone who hit a key three in the first half to keep the Vols in it. He said, “I think that we can demoralize a team, when guys just keep coming in off the bench and making plays like we do. I mean, I’m not sure that I wasn’t a guy that they talked a lot about in their scouting report. So when somebody likes me comes in and hits a big shot or makes something happen, it’s a big boost to our team.”

“I’ve been playing basketball for a long time, and this was a huge game, but it’s still just basketball. I’m not going to hesitate to take a shot if I’m open just because it’s a sweet 16 game or whatever. You just go out there and play hard and that’s all I try to do. I think we have a whole team of guys with that same attitude, so that was a big deal for us.”

Another player who came off the bench tonight and contributed greatly was Cameron Tatum. It’s great to have a player such as Tatum on the bench that we can really rely on. Tatum said, “We were struggling at start of 1st half. We looked a little stagnant out there and when coach put me in he told me we needed some offense and to go in there and make a play.”

“I just wanted to try and give my team a boost. When that three fell, that gave me a lot of confidence and I think kind of lifted our whole team a little bit. We knew we could win this game but we also knew we couldn’t let them get out of the gate fast and build up a lead.”

Tatum provided a great offensive spark and helped Scotty Hopson, who only had 3 points, provide a great defensive effort on stopping Diebler from draining three’s on the Vols. Diebler was 43% on the season from behind the arc coming into the game, but Hopson and Tatum held him to 3 points on 1-8 shooting. Tatum was asked about how important it was to stop him.

“We knew going in that we had to find him and get to him on the catch. He was a big part of our scout. Turner is a great player, but one of the things that makes him so great is having teammates knock down open shots when he draws the defense into the paint. Tonight I just thought we did a great job of knowing where he was all the time, even in transition. He’s a guy that can get really hot in a hurry, so that’s a big deal for us.”

Perhaps the biggest turning point in the game was at halftime. Bruce generally tries to stay positive during his halftime talk but he let the Vols have it this time. Hopson said, “I’ve never heard coach like that at half time. His speech was outrageous; there was a lot of yelling going on.” Bruce was more than likely irritated that the Vols were allowing Ohio State to shoot 55.6% from the floor in the first half.

Bruce said, “I got after them really hard. Fifty six percent shooting, Ohio State doesn’t lose when they out-shoot their opponent. If we’re going to do that, we might as well go home, because it’s done. I challenged their toughness. I said I thought they were intimidated early in that game and we were not the more physical team in the first half.

Williams was asked after the game about the halftime speech and he responded with, “He was yelling at us to stop the ball down the middle. It’s just defense and rebounds wins championships. That’s our motto and I think it showed tonight.” Boy did it ever show tonight as the Vols out rebounded the buckeyes 41 to 29, with 20 offensive rebounds for the Big Orange and only 16 defensive rebounds for the Buckeye’s.

The halftime talk must have worked as the Vols held Ohio State to 32.3% in the second half and dominated the interior. They ended up with a 50-22 advantage of points in the paint over the Buckeye’s. After the game Bruce said, “I’m proud of the fact that we got the ball inside. It’s one thing to say you have the advantage, and it’s another thing to have the patience to pound it in there.”

The Vols were solid down the final stretch, something point guards Maze and Goins contribute to experience.

Goins: “We’ve been in a lot of close games this year and we’ve come out on top in most of them. We know what to do in those situations, we’re comfortable and tonight I don’t think you saw anyone on our team even start to panic. We kept our poise down the stretch. This team has been through a lot this year, we were not about to let them take us out of our game. They made some big shots and some great plays down the stretch, but you saw the character on our team. We had guys step up and make plays when we had to have it.”

Maze: “Last season we lost so many close games, games that came down to the wire. And this year we’ve done a better job at winning those close games. I just know when the games on the line my teammates are all going to do their job. We don’t have people who get rattled out there on the floor. No matter how big the game is or who the opponent is, if we have a chance to win at the end, we’re going to grab it.”

So the Vol’s finally got revenge for the sweet sixteen loss the Buckeye’s handed them two years ago and moved on for the first time in school history to the elite 8. They did it with a lot of support from the crowd as well.

Bruce and the contingent of athletic department personnel in St Louis this weekend have been begging Vol fans to show up and cheer loud at the games. They did just that for this sweet 16 match up. An estimated 3-4 thousand orange clad Vol’s cheered loud and proud for their team. That number is expected to swell significantly today for the Elite 8 match up, especially since the Lady Vols lost in Memphis the hope is some of those fans will make the short commute north.

Bruce has been talking for years about how the next step in becoming a basketball power was the fan base traveling. In his press conference Bruce mentioned this.

“I’ll give you one example (of how far we’ve come), I remember four years ago ‑‑ Wayne, you were a freshman ‑‑ we went to Madison Square Garden. We managed to get to the (preseason) NIT and Butler, Gonzaga, North Carolina, and Tennessee were the four‑team field, And we didn’t show up. Madison Square Garden is holy ground. And growing up in Boston and being in that environment, it was an honor for me to listen to that horn that only ‑‑ only Madison Square Garden has that horn.”

“And I wanted to honor the basketball with the way we played. Well, we didn’t play well at all. And we had very little people in the stands, our band and cheerleaders didn’t even make it. We looked like an SEC football school that was trying to play basketball and were filling out the field. It was embarrassing and it was something we talked about not ‑‑ trying not to happen again.”

So what did the Vols and Bruce expect this time around?

“What would happen this far from home? Would Tennessee’s basketball program show up? Well, we showed up on the court, and we certainly showed up in the stands, and we certainly are showing up in town. I think what it’s saying to the folks here in the Midwest, that we’ve got a really ‑‑ we’ve got a top 20 basketball program at Tennessee in all facets, both on and off the court. I’m very, very proud, and very appreciative of the support.”

Bruce was not the only one who noticed the Fans. Bobby Maze said, “I can’t say enough about our fans and the support we get. None of us could believe how much orange was in the arena when we went out there to warm up. People were tweeting me all day talking about how they were driving to St Louis and all the Tennessee tags they were seeing. I didn’t know how many would make it. That says a lot about Tennessee and the support we have, I mean we had more fans here tonight that Ohio State, and we really appreciate it. I can tell you that for sure. I can’t really tell you how much that meant to us. It was huge.”

The Vol’s are not ready to give up yet either. They want to make the trip even more worth it for the fans that have shown up to support them in St Louis as well as all of us at home. J.P. may have said it best when he was asked about the victory.

“I’m just proud of my team mates and proud of the whole university. We’ve been through a lot of adversity. I think we actually deserved a victory. We worked hard. It was an overall team effort. We knew we could compete with anybody. We played as a team and we’ve just done a great job with that. We know its not over. We have another game to play.”

“This is not the payoff. It’s still all business. We’re in the Elite Eight, but that doesn’t mean anything yet. We could go home on Sunday, so it’s not over. We enjoyed it on Friday for an hour or two, but we’ve still got one game left and we have a lot to prove as far as I’m concerned. The Final Four is everybody’s dream that plays college basketball. When you’re this close, I can’t tell you how bad I want it. We don’t want to settle for the Elite Eight. We have a chance to do something really special here. It’s not time to celebrate yet.”

The team feels like they are playing to prove something to the media and to the public.

Williams: “When you’ve got somebody doubting you and you prove them wrong, it feels even better.”

Tatum: “We’re Tennessee. That’s all we know how to be. We don’t care what anybody says about us. All the things we went through this year, we’ve still remained Tennessee. And that’s not going to change now. We’re not satisfied yet. We’ve gotten to the elite 8 and made history, but you don’t get a trophy for the elite 8. We know we’ve got more work to do.”

Goins: “I can’t believe this whole situation. But it’s still business. The weekends not over. We’ve got business to take care of.”

I am so glad the Vols won but their attitudes after the game let me know that this team isn’t done being special yet. No one expected this on January 2nd. Most of us were ready to write off the season after losing Tyler. No the Vols are here and are planning on staying. I think Coach Pearl summed it up nicely.

“I thought the guys had a measured response (after the win), I want the kids to be happy and celebrate. The coaches have to work tonight. I’m big on not reflecting in season. This is no time to reflect. This is time to prepare for our next game. And I am happy. I’m proud. I’m proud to tears. I don’t even being to tell you how happy I am. But we’ve got work to do now. We’ve got to prepare for a game, and we’ll reflect when the season’s over.”

So the Vols play Michigan State at 2:20 p.m. on Sunday. MSU is coached by March Madness legend Tom Izzo. “I can’t put into words the appreciation and respect I have,” Pearl said Saturday of the guy who will be on the other bench. Izzo and Michigan State have almost become synonymous with the Final Four. They’ve been there five times in the past 11 years, a claim nobody else can make. Not Roy Williams and not Mike Krzyzewski.

Some of the players were asked how they thought this experience would come into play. “It will come into affect the longer and closer the game goes,” Spartans forward Delvon Roe said Saturday.

“When it gets down to the five-minute mark of the second half in a tight ballgame, we will have the advantage because we have been there before and they haven’t.”

“That,” added Michigan State senior Raymar Morgan, “is half the battle.”

However some of the Vols may think that MSU’s players are putting a little too much stock into their past success. “You can’t take away Michigan State’s Final Fours and all those great players,” J.P. Prince said on behalf of the Vols, “but I don’t live in the past. The only thing that matters is Sunday at 1 o’clock (Central). Hopefully, we’ll be the best team for those 40 minutes.”

The Spartans lead the country with a +9 rebounding margin. The game will be a very physical one and it will be won through rebounding. The Vols are 16-0 when they out rebound their opponent. Michigan State is 17-4 when they do the same. The Vols know what they have to do.

“It’s going to take the whole team to rebound at every position. I mean, it’s not necessarily just Wayne and Brian’s job to get the rebound, even though we do try to force it on them,” J.P. Prince said with a smile. “But we know the guards, also, we have to come down and help them when they’re boxing their man out to get those boards and give them a little rest and a chance to run and seal and get them the ball in the break. But at the end of the game the rebounding probably will be the key.”

Chism said, “It’s going to be a fight on the inside for the ball. Ever since I’ve been at Tennessee people have been saying we’re soft, but we’ve stood up to every challenge. This year we made an identity for ourselves by guarding, being physical and rebounding, and no one is going to stop us from playing that way.”

Tatum said, “We know we have to prove we won’t get pushed around by Michigan State. It’s about pride, and you can’t be fearful. They play physical, we have to play physical right back.”

“It’s been proven throughout this whole tournament, the team that plays the hardest, the most physical, defends the best and rebounds wins the basketball game,” Maze said. “That’s going to be the key in this game. We want to go out and play 40 minutes of Tennessee basketball.”

The Vols do have a height advantage as the Spartans start 3 6’8” players as the tallest ones. Here are 5 keys according to bleacherreport.com that the Vols must do to win:

  1. Expose MSU’s Limitations Without Kalin Lucas

In the middle of Big Ten conference play, Lucas got hurt, and the Spartans lost their best scorer (14.8 points per game), playmaker (4.0 assists per game), and an experienced junior leader.

His replacement Korie Lucious has been an excellent clutch shooter in the tourney, coming off a career high 39 points, but he turned the ball over six times in his first stint replacing Lucas.

Tennessee’s ball thieving guards Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins can create opportunities on the break from Lucious’ mistakes, and Maze can use his blow by ability to get to the rim for easy deuces.

2.      Punish MSU on the block with Wayne Chism and Brian Williams

Against the Buckeyes, the Vols dominated OSU’s lumbering big men with Chism and Williams combining for 31 points and 23 boards.

Powerful big men like Greg Oden have doomed many Tennessee teams in the past, but Michigan State only has the offensively limited Delvon Roe and the 6’6″ mostly perimeter oriented Draymond Green.

These guys are quicker than the Buckeyes’ posts, but Tennessee can use their girth inside to get offensive boards and easy layups and tip ins.

If Chism can be unstoppable inside with his post moves, and Brian Williams contributes with rebounds and tip ins, Tennessee should easily win.

3.      Defend and Make the Three

In the Sweet 16, the Vols only made four outside shots, and this guy (see pic) made none. On the other hand, the “make it rain” ability of Durrell Summers, Korie Lucious, and Chris Allen (seven threes made) saved Sparty from an early exit.

Chism is known for his post dominance in this tournament, but his outside game is what makes Weezy so hard to defend. If the Vols put their long athletic defenders like Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze on the perimeter, they can shut down MSU’s bread and butter and prevent the Spartans from making an eighth Final Four.

4. Stop Raymar Morgan from Being Active on Offense

As the only Michigan St. senior who gets consistent minutes, Morgan carries a heavy load on his chiseled 6’7″, 230 lb frame. If he’s not in foul trouble like he was against N. Iowa, Raymar Morgan can score in bunches (14.0 ppg in the first two tournament games).

He has some weight on Tennessee wings J.P. Prince and Steven Pearl, and they must front him and cause turnovers to prevent his basket cuts and finishes in Tom Izzo’s precise zone motion offense.

5. Be Patient in Half Court Sets

Tennessee runs the best Flex offense in NCAA basketball because they have a steady point guard in Bobby Maze and have athletic, versatile wings like J.P. Prince and Scotty Hopson to make flex cuts to the rim.

In the tournament, with the exception of the San Diego St. game, the Vols have been patient and looked for Chism and Prince cutting to the hoop instead of taking difficult threes early in the shot clock.

If they continue this style of play with their taxing full court press and control the tempo of the game, the Vols can make the Final Four. But if they go back to not looking for the flex cuts and jack up threes like in the Kentucky game (2-15 from three), the Vols will make an early exit.

Random Tidbits

  • SEC had two teams make it to the Elite 8 and the Big East only had 1
  • At half time TN shot 46% and 50% from 3
    • Tatum had No misses and scored all 11 points in less than nine minutes
    • Prince had 9 pts 3 assists and 0 turnovers in 1st half
  • Chism is now UT’s All-Time leading NCAA Tourney scorer with 138 points in 10 games played.
    • Lofton had 130 in 8 games, Dale Ellis 116 in 8 games
  • Prince had 14 points vs OSU. UT has won 10 straight when Prince hits double digits. 17-2 overall
  • UT 27-0 when leading with 5 min left, 26-0 when out shooting opponent, 16-0 when out rebound opponent, 6-0 on Fridays, 3-0 on Sundays so far
  • TN will be lowest seed to reach Final Four since ’06 George Mason with a win over MSU
  • MSU has 32 wins in NCAA Tourney since 1999. That’s the most out of everyone.
  • Pearl on Wall vs Turner debate
    • “Wall is as good in transition and as good at attacking the rim as anybody we’ve seen in college basketball in a long, long time. But Turner’s a different matchup. Turner presents teams with more problems. He can do more things because of his size and length. Turner is more of a Kobe Bryant type point guard.”
    • The Vols have faced Wall 3x and Turner 1x
  • Pearl on Iowa Job opening
    • “I am here at Tennessee. I am going to be at Tennessee. I am grateful to be at Tennessee. I hope Iowa does a great job and gets themselves a great coach.”
    • Bruce was an assistant at Iowa from ’86 to ’92 under Tom Davis
  • Vols sank 12 of 15 FT’s for 80%

About Steven Harris

Steven Harris is a fifth year senior at the University of Tennessee. Majoring in sports journalism, this blog provides an outlet for Harris to share his thoughts on the state of the University of Tennessee's athletic department''s Volunteer teams. View all posts by Steven Harris

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