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Mike Strange: Tennessee is here for a reason

By Mike Strange Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tenn.) (MCT) • Updated Mar 28, 2014 at 12:06 AM

INDIANAPOLIS — So, call the roll. Wichita State. Syracuse. Kansas.

They’re gone.

Creighton. Duke. Villanova.

They’re gone, too.

North Carolina, Cincinnati, Ohio State, Gonzaga and some of the other usual suspects. Gone.

Fifty-two of the 68 teams who went to bed Selection Sunday with a dream. Gone.

“I think we’re blessed and humbled to be here,” Tennessee senior Jeronne Maymon said Thursday.

Here? In the immediate sense, here was a chair in Tennessee’s locker room, deep in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium. Around Maymon swarmed a small army of cameras and microphones, few of them familiar faces.

Here is the Sweet 16, the point when that compelling pageant of March, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, gets serious. Tennessee is still here.

“I’m not totally surprised,” Tony Watson said from the front row of the bleachers during the open practice Thursday. “This team, they showed flashes of brilliance, like against Virginia.”

Watson is a transplanted East Tennessean living in Ohio. He came to Indy with his 17-year-old son — Peyton, of course — to behold Tennessee’s return to the national spotlight.

The spotlight will shine brightest Friday night when the Vols face Michigan in the Midwest Region semifinals, followed by the latest chapter in the hoops Armageddon known as Kentucky-Louisville.

It’s good company. Michigan was supposed to be here, the Midwest’s No. 2 seed. The Vols are the mystery guest.

Well, they did show flashes of brilliance here and there. But Sweet 16? That’s a long way for an 11-seed to travel from a First Four game in Dayton.

“Every team in the Sweet 16, they’re here for a reason,” said Nik Stauskus, Michigan’s Big Ten player of the year.

Believe Stauskus. Tennessee has reasons. Better late than never, the Vols clicked in late February. They’ve been a juggernaut ever since.

Their defense has been stifling. They’ve figured out the offense should flow inside to Jarnell Stokes and then back outside to Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson. Come March, this is a good basketball team.

With every step, from Atlanta to Dayton to Raleigh, the stakes have gotten higher, the crowds bigger, the lights brighter.

And now, a Sweet 16 in a football stadium.

“Yeah,” said sophomore Derek Reese, “I can tell it’s getting bigger and bigger.

“More media. You see famous people that you see on ESPN all the time. It hits you now that this is really big-time.”

Friday, the Vols will play before the biggest crowd in school history, about 40,000. The previous high was 26,776 in San Antonio for a Sweet 16 game in 2007.

It’s fair to wonder if they’re ready for it. Michigan is, seasoned by the road to the championship game a year ago.

“Getting used to the 10-minute walk from your locker room to the floor can be something kids aren’t used to,” said Michigan coach John Beilein.

“(The Wolverines) have been through it. They’ve survived it. And now they just go play basketball.”

It so happens that’s exactly what the Vols are planning on doing as well.

“Sometimes,” said Stokes, “experience is overrated.”

“Basketball,” added Maymon, “doesn’t change, no matter what stage you’re on.”

So there it is, the hope for Friday. Let the outcome be determined by who is the best team on this particular night, not by who’s been on this stage before.

One thing to remember: So many others are gone. They’re just watching.

Tennessee is still here, still on this stage. And as Stauskus said, they’re here for a reason.


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