ST. LOUIS - Just before noon New Year's Day, Bruce Pearl saw his Tennessee basketball team gutted by the arrest and suspension of four players over weapons and drug charges that came out of a routine traffic stop.
Logic would have precluded Pearl from entertaining any thoughts about a trip to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament just three months later, because Pearl had to first save the program, and then try and salvage the season.
He did that, winning the next five games with just six scholarship players and three walk-ons. The Volunteers beat top-ranked Kansas along the way, and their resiliency and mettle has carried them from that low point on Jan. 1 into a meeting tonight with Ohio State at the Edward Jones Dome in the Midwest Regional semifinal.
"What happened back in January, that could have shattered the program," said Tennessee associate head coach Tony Jones, who was an assistant coach at the University of Toledo from 1996-01.
"We were in the foxhole and we were hurt. We had to fight our way out, and it's a real tribute to coach Pearl and these players that we are here, with the chance to play Ohio State and go to the Elite Eight. It is amazing what has happened."
The Volunteers (27-8) lost four of their top eight players after the incident, with starter and senior forward Tyler Smith eventually being kicked off the team. Two other players served five-game suspensions, and the final player involved sat out 10 games.
"It brought out the best in some of the other guys," Pearl said yesterday. "And that's what a team is all about."
Tennessee senior guard Bobby Maze said a victory over the Buckeyes tonight would not only take the Volunteers deeper into the tournament than they have ever been, but it also will provide further proof that Tennessee came out of that arrest mess a better team.
"I think this win would mean a lot to us because of all that we've been through," Maze said. "A win here alone would say for us that we are a great team, and Jan. 1 don't mean a thing."
The Buckeyes (29-7) are expecting Tennessee to display the same desperation and determination it used to work through the radical lineup adjustments that took place after the January incident.
"They're a feisty team, and it seems like what all they've been through has made them more motivated," Ohio State sophomore William Buford said.
"When teams get hit with something big like that, they can either fall apart, or really come together. Tennessee obviously pulled together and came out of it even stronger, and that's why they're here."
Ohio State expects the Volunteers to try and push the game into a rapid tempo, and use their pressure to create offensive opportunities.
"They like to get out in transition, get fast-break points, and really pressure you," Ohio State junior Evan Turner said. "We've been studying their whole team, but more importantly, we've been focusing on playing our game. If we play Ohio State basketball, we'll be fine."
Pearl, when reminded that the Buckeyes play essentially six guys and will often leave four of their starters in for nearly the full 40 minutes, said Ohio State's success in the recent Big Ten tournament has convinced him that OSU's lack of depth won't be an issue tonight.
"I don't think fatigue will be a factor - they played three games in three days in the Big Ten tournament," he said. "These kids have been playing 38 or 39 minutes all season long. Whether or not we can wear them out and get them in foul trouble - those are certainly two things we'd like to try and accomplish."
Ohio State coach Thad Matta said he is confident his starters can go as long as needed, and not suffer a significant drop in production.
"We try to train every guy on our team to have the capability to play 40 minutes," Matta said. "We've got tremendous kids. I don't know if you could play the guys we're playing, the minutes they're playing, if they were not great kids, competitive kids."
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Just before noon New Year's Day, Bruce Pearl saw his Tennessee basketball team gutted by the arrest and suspension of four players over weapons and drug charges that came out of a routine traffic stop. Logic would have precluded Pearl from entertaining any thoughts about a trip to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament just three months later, because Pearl had to first save the program, and then try and salvage the season.