All together now: survive and advance. The why and the how are less important. The fact remains - the Vols head to the Sweet 16 once again, and will try Thursday night to advance to the Elite 8 for the first time in the history of the program.
In the first five minutes, the Vols looked like they'd finally play that very best game that some of us still seem to be looking for, even though the Vols are now 31-4 on the year. But when Butler did what Butler does - and it should be said over and over, that this was a very good basketball team we played today, even if they too weren't at their best - the Vols first never let Butler get the lead in regulation, and then when they finally did take it in overtime, Tennessee never flinched. This was a gritty, toughness win that will make the Vols better, not worse.
And yeah, it'll need to get better. Right now both Louisville and North Carolina are playing Ivan Drago to some pretty good Apollo Creeds - if you like offense, Carolina wins by scoring 108 on the Arkansas Razorbacks and winning by 31. If you like defense, U of L holds 6 seed Oklahoma to 48 points in a 30 point win. And few teams have looked better than Washington State in this tournament, who'll join those two and the Vols for the all-chalk Regional Finals in Charlotte on Thursday and Saturday that might as well be a mini-Final Four.
For the Vols...the point guard play will continue to be a hot topic. JP Prince still probably puts our best five on the floor, but his meltdown at the end of regulation with consecutive turnovers on the game's most precious possessions opened the door for a fresh Ramar Smith, who came in and helped paved the way. Despite the late errors, Prince finishes with 9 points, 7 boards and 5 assists. But he also had 6 turnovers. Pearl will decide the call there (and I still feel like the moment that Jordan Howell hits the first three he tries, that'll all go away), but between now and then let's hope he figures out which is the best route to go.
But let's remember this as well: Chris Lofton has scored 14 points in the first two tournament games combined. And the Vols are going to the Sweet 16.
Wayne Chism has come up huge of late. I love what they're doing on the Vol Network immediately after the game is over in the tournament, where one player and then Pearl join Bob & Bert real quick for a more in-the-moment reaction. You can hear the raw confidence in Chism's voice, as if he knows exactly how good he is. And it's great fun to hear Pearl in the moment - to hear him yelling "Yeah baby, YEAH!" to the orange faithful just before he gets on the headset, to hear Rocky Top in the building, to get on the air and then wish everyone a Happy Easter and say that he hopes everyone went to church, that there are things today that are so much more important that basketball - and again, this is Easter and Pearl is Jewish - that the Vols felt the prayers today and God bless everyone...I love this side of Pearl.
And I'll tell you who I don't love: Rick Pitino. At all. Less than Spurrier. Bring it on, baby.
So here's what we'll see next weekend:
Thursday - Sweet 16
West (Phoenix) - 7:10 - 3 Xavier vs. 7 West Virginia
East (Charlotte) - 7:30 - 1 North Carolina vs. 4 Washington State
West (Phoenix) - 9:40 - 1 UCLA vs. 12 Western Kentucky
East (Charlotte) - 10:00 - 2 Tennessee vs. 3 Louisville
Friday - Sweet 16
Midwest (Detroit) - 7:10 - 3 Wisconsin vs. 10 Davidson
South (Houston) - 7:30 - 2 Texas vs. 3 Stanford
Midwest (Detroit) - 9:40 - 1 Kansas vs. 12 Villanova
South (Houston) - 10:00 - 1 Memphis vs. 5 Michigan State
And a few more random observations before we shut 'er down for this weekend:
- As scripted, the two most anticipated games will be Tennessee/Louisville on Thursday and Texas/Stanford on Friday. The first one should be called a literal toss up by all the experts between now and then, and the Vols get that extra added factor with Chris Lofton getting another shot at his home state before he graduates (and Lofton is 0-1 career against U of L, as the Vols lost to the Cards in 2005 back when Buzz Peterson was still here). If Tennessee plays to the level of its competition, expect better basketball Thursday. And again, you'd just better be ready to go the distance. I'm still proud of Marquette, but Stanford's also very good, and I think those Lopez kids are punks - which is an enjoyable thing to watch when I want them to win, as I will against Texas, and something I'd love a crack at at some point for the Vols to shut them up on the other hand. One thing at a time...
- I know Carolina just ripped Arkansas, but there's a part of me that'd really rather just go ahead and play them if we win rather than face Washington State and their defensive prowess. I know the Vols will be up and ready for UNC, and I worry about Wazzou's potential to quietly stun everyone and make it to the Final Four.
- I've got 9 teams right in the Sweet 16, and we're about halfway the rest of the way - I've got 4 of my Elite 8 left, and 2 (Kansas & Tennessee) of my Final Four still standing. Of all the crazy things I picked, I've been most right on Western Kentucky. So the insanity continues in my bracket, with WKU over UCLA. The problem is, I expected UCLA to play a flat game and get caught, and now I think we already saw it yesterday against Texas A&M, and the Bruins escaped. Could be trouble.
- If Stephen Curry ever shows up in the first half, Davidson might win the whole thing.
- A modified bracket at this point, for me, would have Tennessee, Kansas, Xavier and Stanford making the Final Four.
This weekend has been, as expected, one of the very best things about sports. And most importantly, for the Vols, this weekend has become next weekend. The best season in school history now goes back to the Sweet 16 for the third time this decade. And late Thursday night in Charlotte, the Vols will play the biggest game in the history of the program, to carry this thing one step further.
Happy Easter to one and all...here in Ceres it's an hour before, and I still find myself pacing the floor, if you will, still with about 90 minutes to fill even after finishing all my Easter duties. Plus, I'm pretty sure that the swiss cheese they served at the church luncheon was definitely past its prime, and so I may be celebrating the resurrection in all new ways for the rest of the day. It's for details like this that you read this blog, I know.
While we're waiting, here's a great article from Mike Strange about the Butler/Hoosiers connections. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt probably wants to bury its head somewhere if they're watching Siena and Villanova, because those yellow jerseys ain't what they were two days ago, that's for sure.
Will the SEC have anyone left standing after today? With the favored 'Dores making the first round exit and the Vols playing the role of the vulnerable two seed, and with Arkansas and Mississippi State facing the aces of their respective brackets today, the conference can either make a big statement or go home quietly today. Me and my bracket hope it's the latter.