Tennessee has never had much success in the postseason. The Volunteers are hoping to change that in this season’s NCAA tournament.
The fifth-seeded Vols look to shake off another disappointing SEC tournament performance when they face 12th seed Long Beach State on Friday in the South Regional at Columbus, Ohio.
Tennessee (22-10) entered the conference tournament with four straight wins and an 8-2 record in its previous 10 games, but lost 76-67 to LSU in the first round. The Vols have not advanced past the second round of the SEC tourney since falling in the 1991 championship game.
Tennessee hasn’t fared much better in the NCAAs. In 14 trips, the Vols have won more than one game only once, reaching the regional semifinals in 2000. Tennessee, 9-15 in the NCAA tournament, reached the regional semis in 1981 but had a first-round bye.
Last season, Tennessee earned a No. 2 seed, the highest in school history, but lost to Wichita State in the second round.
“If we’re going to do something about this and we’re going to change history, we’re going to have to step up as a team and I’m going to have to step up as a coach and our fans need to continue to step up and come up there and support us,” coach Bruce Pearl said.
The Vols went 10-6 in the tough SEC East Division and won their last four matchups against ranked opponents. That momentum, however, didn’t carry them very far in the conference tournament.
“When you get to March and it’s tournament time you’ve got to be special and we didn’t have it tonight,” Pearl said after the loss to LSU.
Chris Lofton, the AP player of the year in the SEC, scored a team-high 21 points against the Tigers. He averaged an SEC-best 20.6 points per game and leads a Tennessee squad that ranked first in the conference with 79.7 points a contest.
The Vols, though, also allowed a league-worst 74.4 points per game.
Pearl was happy with his team’s seeding, feeling the selection committee gave considerable weight to Tennessee’s rough schedule.
“I thought we were in the five to seven range,” he said. “I felt if Florida was a No. 1, where would the second-highest seeded SEC team be from the No. 2 RPI conference? Therefore, I thought it’s probably going to be lower. I feel like it’s where we ought to be.”
Pearl knows all too well that No. 12 seeds have a reputation for pulling first-round upsets, having led 12th-seeded Wisconsin-Milwaukee to the round of 16 in 2005.
“History does tell us that a 12 will beat a five,” Pearl said.
Long Beach State (24-7) is making its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1995, thanks to a 94-83 win over Cal Poly in the Big West Conference tournament final Saturday. The 49ers are in the tournament for the eighth time and have a 7-8 record in the NCAAs.
Aaron Nixon had 29 points and a career-high 11 rebounds Saturday for the 49ers, winners of six straight and 11 of 12. Nixon leads the team with 18.6 points per game and was the conference’s player of the year.
“All that other stuff, you could’ve given it to anybody,” said Nixon, who was also named most valuable player of the Big West tournament. “We had one goal as a team, and that was to get to the NCAA tournament. I’m just happy that we turned it around and finally got over the hump.”
The 49ers ranked second in the Big West with 80.3 points per game.
Tennessee and Long Beach State have never met. However, 49ers coach Larry Reynolds was an assistant at California-Riverside when it faced Pearl’s Southern Indiana team for the 1995 NCAA Division II national championship.
“Southern Indiana was down 30-8 in the first half and we came back to win the game,” Pearl said. “Larry has done a terrific job. They will play a very attractive style. They’re very up-tempo.”