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In hindsight, Pearl wishes Vols hadn't played Buckeyes

SAN ANTONIO -- After nearly escaping the Value City Arena with a victory earlier this season, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl now wishes he hadn't already played Ohio State.

The Volunteers confused Ohio State with a pressing defense that forced 20 turnovers and baffled the Buckeyes most of the game. Only a late 3-pointer by senior guard Ron Lewis enabled Ohio State to escape with a 68-66 victory. Now Pearl fears that the element of surprise might be missing if he attempts to similarly bamboozle the No. 1 ranked Buckeyes in Thursday's South Regional semifinal.

"It was the first time they'd seen that kind of pressure, and they'll handle it better this time," Pearl said. "We played our cards and showed our hand, so I don't think that first game in Columbus is necessarily going to help us much here."

Lewis said the Buckeyes repeatedly have heard from coach Thad Matta and his assistants about their struggles in the first meeting. Ohio State, Lewis says, will be ready for Tennessee's faster pace in Thursday's game. The Buckeyes have averaged only 10.2 turnovers a game since the Jan. 13 victory over the Volunteers, which started their current 19-game winning streak.

"All we heard about was 20 turnovers from our coaches in that game," Lewis said. "I can guarantee you, we will be ready this time around."

Most observers think the Volunteers need to be able to spring some element of surprise to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. Tennessee comes into the game with the least notoriety of any of the teams that will play Thursday night at the Alamodome.

"It doesn't bother us that people don't focus on us or pay us much attention," Tennessee freshman forward Wayne Chism said. "The way we see it, we're playing with our backs against the wall against everybody else. And all of that other stuff just motivates us to go further."

Tennessee players say the earlier Ohio State game has given them confidence they can play with the Buckeyes, even if the rest of the country might be doubting them.

"I think it's easy to be overwhelmed when you see all the hype that surrounds a program like Ohio State or North Carolina," Tennessee senior forward Dane Bradshaw said. "It's comforting to know we've played them before."

But in order to advance, Tennessee must improve on several areas from the first game. Freshman center Greg Oden had a coming-out party with 24 points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots. Tennessee shot 39 percent in the game, converted only 5 of 11 free throws and was dominated on the boards, 46-29.

Still, the Volunteers had several chances to win the game. Freshman guard Ramar Smith and junior guard Chris Lofton both clanked front ends of one-and-ones in the final 26.5 seconds of overtime, with the Volunteers trying to protect a one-point lead.

After Lofton's free-throw miss, Pearl and Lofton's teammates came up with a new nickname for him.

"They talk about that all the time," Lofton said. "They call me 'Buckeye' [for] when I missed the free throws in the last game. It's a joke and they tease me a lot. But it's just for my own good."

Lofton has rebounded from a midseason ankle injury to emerge as the Volunteers' top offensive weapon. He has averaged 21.7 points per game over his last seven games, including 25 points against Long Beach State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and 20 points against Virginia in Sunday's second round. He's been emblematic of a roster that Pearl has dubbed "a bunch of misfit toys." It's a team that has embraced pressure situations, even with a rotation dotted by a unique collection of players.

Bradshaw, at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, might be the nation's smallest power forward. The Volunteers have a freshman point guard in Smith, who never played the position before this season. Chism has emerged as a key contributor while starting the last 15 games. Lofton, the leading scorer, was barely recruited coming out of high school, deciding on Tennessee only over a scholarship offer from Georgetown College, an NAIA in school in Kentucky.

All those parts have come together to create good times for Pearl, whose team has advanced to the Sweet 16 for only the fourth time in school history. The Vols have played an entertaining style that has led the Southeastern Conference in scoring in back-to-back 20-win seasons. The Volunteers are 9-4 against ranked teams the last two seasons, including a 6-3 mark this season. In that time, attendance has increased by 7,436 fans per game. This season, they notched their first undefeated SEC mark at home since 1975-76.

The quick building job has enabled the Vols to shuck their earlier reputation as an underachieving men's basketball school when compared with the success of the school's football and women's basketball teams. Renovation of Thompson-Boling Arena began earlier this week, including construction of a $15 million practice facility and the addition of 32 suites to the 24,000-seat arena.

"One of the most satisfying things about our personnel is that we play best when everybody contributes," Pearl said. "If you look at our stat sheets, nine guys have double-digit averages in minutes and we have about nine guys taking shots. We've got nine guys that play and I think have a real understanding of what their roles are.

"You put that together, and it's been very effective for us."

Pearl just hopes he has something left that will be effective against Ohio State on Thursday night.

Tim Griffin covers college sports for the San Antonio Express-News.