BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP)—Sixty wins, four high-scoring guards and two teams that aren’t quite sure they should be meeting so soon.
Tennessee versus Butler has all the mathematics of a second-weekend NCAA tournament pairing, but they’ll meet instead Sunday in an unprecedented round-2 clash despite resumes that left both feeling jilted when the seedings were drawn up.
“I think we both did everything we possibly could to put ourselves in better positions than to see another 30-win team in the second round,” Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl said.
In fact, two 30-win teams have never met in the tournament’s second round, according to the NCAA.
Motivation or old news? Depends on which team you ask.
The second-seeded Volunteers and seventh-seeded (and 11th-ranked) Bulldogs, both with a school-record 30 wins, surely do have enough to worry about with each other.
“We left the feelings about the seedings in Indiana,” Butler forward Julian Betko said. “I think what we care about now is which of the teams is going to get to 31 wins.”
Once ranked No. 1, the Vols (30-4) feel they made quite a case for a top seed. Guard JaJuan Smith even had “No. 1 Seed” written on his sneakers for Friday’s game, though all the brackets say otherwise. Backcourt mate Chris Lofton isn’t hesitating to draw on that perceived snubbing for a small dose of extra incentive, and expects a similar attitude from Butler.
It’s one reason why he predicts “a grind-out, physical game.”
“Both teams are playing with a chip on their shoulder,” Lofton said. “We’re out to prove something, so it should be a great game.”
One with 3-pointers flying, a frenzied pace if Tennessee has its way, and battling backcourts.
For all their obvious differences in style, profile and even enrollment— Tennessee has 27,308 students and Butler 4,400—the two teams have much in common, too.
For one, the Vols are known more for football and women’s basketball than men’s hoops and Butler is more known for, well, not being all that well-known.
They are taking a different approach to the perceived seeding snubs.
“We’re not getting into seeding and the number next to our name,” said Brad Stevens, Butler’s fresh-faced 31-year-old coach. “At the end of this tournament, there’s just going to be one team left standing, and the other 64 will have regrets.”
Of more pressing concern is guarding the opposing guards.
Tennessee’s duo of Smith-and-Lofton has combined for 3,468 career points. Not far behind, Butler counterparts A.J. Graves and Mike Green have scored 3,408.
“They’re two great players and we know what they’re capable of doing,” Smith said. “We also want to be in that category. This is another chance for me and Chris to step up and make a name for ourselves also.”
All that’s not even counting Butler’s Pete Campbell, who drilled eight of the Bulldogs’ 15 3-pointers in a first-round rout of South Alabama. Or Tennessee’s J.P. Prince, an athletic 6-7 guard who is sharing time with Ramar Smith and Jordan Howell at the point in a rare NCAA tournament experiment. He will do so again Sunday, Pearl said.
The Vols weren’t hitting many 3s in beating American, but launch an average of 25 per game. Lofton especially was shut down, going 0-for-5 on 3-pointers and scoring just five points.
He also managed a subpar eight points before fouling out in last year’s early-season meeting, a 56-44 Butler win.
Pearl didn’t want to mess with his senior shooter’s psyche with a sit-down talk, but gave him a more subtle confidence booster.
“I sent Chris a message today in our walk-through by some things that I want to try to do to get him open,” Pearl said Saturday. “We will call on him again because he’s delivered for us all season long.”
Sorry, Butler. It will be hard to sneak up on the Vols after holding them to a season-low point total last year.
“Last year we overlooked Butler, being from the Horizon League,” Lofton admitted.
He also doesn’t think a team from the high-profile Southeastern Conference has an inherent head-to-head matchup with those mid-majors these days. After all, six of Butler’s eight NCAA tournament wins have come over higher seeds.
Plus, the Bulldogs gave quite a scare to eventual national champion Florida in last year’s tournament, leading by a point in the final 4 minutes.
“These mid-majors are really taking over,” Lofton said. “Mid-majors are the future, I think. They’re great basketball teams and they have players that get overlooked.”
Pearl knows that as well as most. He led Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Butler’s Horizon League rival, to two wins in the 2005 tournament—including one over the SEC’s Alabama—to help launch him into the Tennessee job.
Pearl faced Butler nine times between 2001 and 2005, calling the Bulldogs’ style “the most challenging system in basketball” and a matchup “nightmare.” Butler is 24-0 when hitting at least eight 3-pointers.
This is one time when Pearl won’t be pulling for the little guys.
“We all root for mid-majors,” he said. “We all root for the underdog this time of the year. I always do.”
But, he added, “Not tomorrow.”