- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Tennessee has no business being in the Sweet 16.
UT's season since Jan. 1 has been just about as dysfunctional as possible and yet like so many teams, the Vols found themselves at the right time.
Tennessee had just won at Memphis on New Year's Eve day and the Vols were looking like a real contender in the SEC East. Then Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum, Melvin Goins and Brian Williams were arrested on misdemeanor gun, drug and alcohol charges during a traffic stop in Knoxville on New Year's Day.
Smith was suspended and ultimately dismissed. Williams pleaded guilty to drug possession and was suspended for nine games (sat out 10). Tatum pleaded guilty to speeding and all charges were dismissed against Goins. The last two were suspended for four games and sat for five.
"Jan. 1 to now? Oh yeah,'' said Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl about how surprised he is with what has occurred. "But I can't control it. We were just going to prepare for Charlotte and see what happens.''
Tennessee beat Charlotte, No. 1 Kansas, Auburn and then-No. 21 Ole Miss in overtime -- all at home -- before extending the streak with a road win at Alabama. As the season progressed, the Vols dropped some games but also knocked off No. 2 Kentucky at home late in the season and then pulled off a major win at Mississippi State to end the conference season -- a loss that likely cost the Bulldogs an NCAA at-large berth.
Tennessee senior Wayne Chism said the Vols' team of six scholarship players and three walk-ons was a tight unit. And as each of the three suspended players came back they were welcomed by their teammates.
Williams said he couldn't get over how much the Tennessee fans, staff and players accepted him back after his mistake in judgment.
"It gave me a different perspective on basketball, on how hard you have to work at this high level and how people take basketball for granted,'' Williams said. "I saw how much I miss it.''
"To the outside world, it was great that everyone doubted us,'' Chism said. "But our fans stayed with us. We never stopped being together.''
And it showed. The Vols grinded out a win against San Diego State in the first round here and then was able to win much more of an uptempo game against Ohio in the second round.
"Coach said we can win a slow-down game and when a team speeds up the game, too,'' Chism said. "We would win a game in the 60s and one in the 70s and 80s. We can play at either speed.''
What Pearl has also done in easily his most challenging and successful coaching season is ensure that everyone on the roster is ready. Goins came back into the fold and made the decisive 3-pointer against the Aztecs. Against the Bobcats on Saturday, Pearl used Josh Bone for 10 quality minutes off the bench. Bone scored seven points, grabbed four boards and was 3-of-4 from the field. Bone didn't play against San Diego State and hadn't played in 10 of the last 11 games. During the suspension-filled homestand, he played 26 minutes in the win over Ole Miss.
Bottom line: This Tennessee team is as loose as you'll see. The Vols are relishing this newfound role of being discarded and not expected to succeed. And that seems to be the trend this weekend. Expect nothing. Tennessee has never been to the Elite Eight. That alone is amazing. Can you imagine if this team is the one that finally gets through to that level? Beat either Georgia Tech or Ohio State in St. Louis and these Vols will make school history. Who had that once Smith was dismissed?
If you said yes, you can't be serious.
"We're not a better team,'' Pearl said. "Our defense and rebounding has really picked up and we have more Brian Williams, more Steven Pearl, Skylar McBee [who hit the clinching 3-pointer against Kansas] and while we've improved defensively and rebounding, I'm not sure we're a better offensive team without Tyler.''
Indeed, every person wearing Orange should feel a part of this potentially historic run in Knoxville.
"The lesson is that the 10th or 11th man stayed ready for their opportunity,'' Pearl said. "But this is not a time of the year to reflect. But I can say at that time on Jan. 1, I didn't know what we had. We had six scholarship players and three to four walk-ons and we had to get them ready to play.''
The Vols have morphed into an evolving team with players coming back onto the roster since and are just now figuring out how much they can still improve. That's a good thing. They've still got at least one game left to play.