COLUMBUS - Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said he was just guessing, but he suspects "that Ohio State has gotten a lot better than we have" since the two teams met earlier this season.
That might be encouraging to OSU fans, considering the Buckeyes edged the Vols by just 68-66 in mid-January at nearby Value City Arena. And that was with Greg Oden amassing 24 points, 15 rebounds, and three blocked shots for the Buckeyes.
Yesterday, Tennessee defeated Virginia 77-74 at Nationwide Arena to advance to the NCAA tournament's Sweet Sixteen, where it will meet top-ranked and top-seeded Ohio State Thursday in San Antonio.
"I think Ohio State has changed a lot," Pearl said. "I haven't studied them that closely yet, but there was some uncertainty for them at that time. Greg was just starting to come on, and they were trying to figure out how to play with him in the lineup. Now they're doing a wonderful job, a much better job of knowing their roles and getting their rotations down. I think Ohio State has improved a great deal."
Pearl said the nonconference game at Ohio State was "a program decision. The game was going to be a CBS game and nobody wanted to go to Columbus to play them because it was like scheduling a loss.
"But when you're at a place like Tennessee and you're not on the radar nationally, you've got to do things like that. In retrospect, just being competitive in that game won us some respect and in some ways helped us advance."
Both teams were 13-3 entering that game. Vols guard Chris Lofton scored 21 points in the contest, with Ramar Smith adding 14 and Dane Bradshaw 11.
"We have to do a better job of defending Oden. He really killed us in the first half," Bradshaw said. "We feel like we've gotten better, but the whole country knows how much [OSU's] young players have started to work as a team."
The 7-foot Oden would figure to be the key in the upcoming meeting, as well. The Vols have no player taller than 6-9 and had five shots blocked yesterday by a Virginia team that has a so-so inside game.
"When we played Ohio State the first time, we played our hand, we played the cards we had to play," Pearl said. "And it got us within a possession of beating them. I don't know how many more adjustments I'm going to be able to make because the way we played them was the way I thought we could beat them."
The biggest difference will be the setting and what is on the line, said Tennessee guard JaJuan Smith.
"We're in the last 16 teams left, and we're fighting for our lives, so I think you'll see a real intense game," he said.
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