ST. LOUIS – With his hands flashing and fingers pointing, the moderator of the news conference looked like a cross between a referee and an overzealous flight attendant, and Bobby Maze just couldn’t resist.
The Tennessee guard started imitating him – subtly, of course, his fingers hidden behind his name card and his face blank. But Wayne Chism caught on eventually and tipped off Scotty Hopson, who burst into giggles.
Yes, the Volunteers are well aware fifth-seeded Michigan State is college basketball royalty, such a regular at the regional finals in recent years the Spartans may as well include it in their preseason itinerary. And that sixth-seeded Tennessee is a rookie, making its first appearance in the round of eight today.
But if anyone expects Tennessee (28-8) to be intimidated or feel even the tiniest bit overwhelmed, well, they don’t know the Vols.
“Our team likes to be free, our team likes to have fun,” Chism said. “If we’re not doing what we usually do, our team’s not comfortable.”
Tennessee has long been a powerhouse – in women’s hoops. On the men’s side? Not so much. When the Vols made the NIT semifinals four years ago, coach Bruce Pearl said the band and the cheerleaders didn’t even make the trip to Madison Square Garden.
“We looked like an SEC football school that was trying to play basketball,” Pearl said. “It was embarrassing, and it was something we talked about trying not to (have) happen again.”
Using the relentless defense he learned as a Big Ten assistant, Pearl has turned the Volunteers into one of the Southeastern Conference’s elite. Tennessee’s 28 victories are the second-most in school history, and they include regular-season upsets of Kansas and Kentucky, the teams that were favored to win the national title coming into the tournament.
Though Tom Izzo has had NBA-caliber stars and role players whose basketball careers ended in East Lansing, Mich., his teams have never changed. The Spartans play defense, defense and more defense.
If you want the basketball, Izzo once told Durrell Summers, then go get rebounds, on offense and defense.
That style of play isn’t exactly pretty, and it often costs the Spartans style points in the polls during the regular season. But come tournament time, it’s teams that play hard-nosed defense that advance.
Since making that first Final Four under Izzo in ’99, the Spartans have returned four times. No other team in the country has that kind of track record in that time span. Not Kentucky, not Kansas, not UCLA, not North Carolina.