DALLAS — Tennessee basketball players made it clear from the jump that making the NCAA Tournament was not the goal.
“We’re not trying to prove anybody wrong, we’re trying to prove ourselves right,” Vols junior forward Admiral Schofield said. “We wanted to win the SEC season, and we were co-champs, and we wanted to win the SEC Tournament, which we didn’t do.
“But now we want to win the national championship, and that’s what were competing for in this tournament.”
Few would have imagined Tennessee being a realistic contender at the start of the season when the Vols were projected to finish 13th in the SEC.
Instead, Tennessee finished ranked 13th in the nation after playing the country’s fourth most-difficult schedule.
The No. 3-seeded Vols (26-8) have appreciably better odds of making the Final Four or winning the national title after South Regional No. 1 seed Virginia and No. 4 seed Arizona have been eliminated.
Tennessee basketball Final Four hurdles
The ACC champion Cavaliers, the overall No. 1 seed and the nation’s No. 1 ranked team, suffered the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history Friday night, falling to UMBC 74-54.
That means South Regional No. 2 seed Cincinnati likely will be the biggest hurdle between Tennessee and what would be a first-ever Final Four appearance.
It’s worth noting SEC Tournament champ and No. 5 South Regional seed Kentucky is still lurking as a potential Elite Eight opponent.
Of course, it’s first things first, and that means the Vols must dispatch of Missouri Valley Conference champion Loyola University Chicago on Saturday in Dallas.
The 29-5 Ramblers were the first NCAA Tournament Cinderella this season, knocking off No. 6 seed Miami with a buzzer-beating shot on Thursday.
“This is a more guard-oriented team, we played a few like that: Villanova, North Carolina and Florida guards were good,” Tennessee senior James Daniel lll said. “We have to keep them out of the lane, pressure them and run our offense.”
Tennessee basketball dialed in
“We won’t overlook them,” Daniel said. “You have to be ready to play and leave nothing to chance. This is March Madness, so anything can happen.”
Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner, who came off the bench to score a game-high 19 points in the Vols’ 73-47 tourney-opening win over Wright State, said there’s no time for butterflies.
“If we don’t take care of business here, we won’t see Atlanta, we’ll be watching it on TV,” Turner said, asked about the possibility of advancing to the South Regional’s Sweet 16 site.
“We got some guys, man, feel like we should have made it last year and have been dreaming about this all our lives,” Turner said. “This isn’t the time to be wide-eyed. We have to do our jobs and be on edge.”