COACH: Bruce Pearl, five years at Tennessee, five years in NCAA Tournament
HOW THEY GOT IN: At-large bid MATCHUP BREAKDOWN: San Diego State is coming into the tournament having won nine of its last 10 games after capturing the Mountain West Conference tournament, upsetting New Mexico in the process. The Vols have won five of their last six but were blasted by Kentucky in the SEC tournament semifinals. Both teams look to balanced scoring with the Aztecs placing four players in double figures, the Vols three, just missing with a fourth. The Vols are forcing opponents into nearly 17 turnovers a game, and the Aztcs make just over 13 a game. The Vols are holding opponents to under 40 percent shooting while the Aztecs are hitting at a 47.7 percent clip.
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GO-TO GUYS: Sophomore guard Scotty Hopson led the Volunteers in scoring in the regular season (13.1), and senior forward Wayne Chism, who battled injuries all season, was right behind at 12.4. Chism was the leading rebounder (6.8 per game for the season and 7.9 in conference play) but also has been known to step out and shoot the 3-pointer. Guard J.P. Prince averaged 16.0 points a game over Tennessee’s last three regular-season games, all wins. He had 20 in the victory over Kentucky and was 17-of-28 from the field in that span. Guard Bobby Maze had the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio (2.26) in the SEC in the regular season and averaged 9.5 points a game. G Melvin Goins came back from a suspension and was 8-of-13 from the field in the last three games of the regular season.
THEY’LL KEEP WINNING IF: Defense remains the big key for the Vols. In their only loss in their last six regular-season games, Florida blistered the nets for 50.9 percent from the floor. In the five wins in that span, only two teams (Georgia at 43.1 and Arkansas at 40.3) topped 40 percent. The Vols held Kentucky to a season-low 35 percent. Kansas came to Knoxville undefeated as the nation’s No. 1 team and managed only 37.7 percent against a depleted Tennessee lineup that was without four key players. The Vols have reached the NCAA field all five years under coach Bruce Pearl and have won at least two games in the tourney in two of the last three years. They dropped a two-point decision to Oklahoma State as a No. 9 seed in the first round last season. STRENGTHS: Tennessee shot better than 46 percent from the field for the regular season and held opponents to under 40. In 16 conference games, the Vols held foes to just 39.6 percent from the field overall and 29.5 percent on 3-pointers. The Vols also were plus-one in turnover margin for the year. In Chism, they have a guy who can take a low-post defender outside and hit the three. Prince is an athletic guard who also can be effective inside. He seemed to become more assertive following the dismissal of Tyler Smith. The Vols forced opponents into just under 17 turnovers a game while making only 13 themselves.
WEAKNESSES: The Vols’ 3-point success rate was only 32.3 percent for the regular season and 29.9 in SEC games. Hopson shot 36.2 percent for the regular season but was only 4-of-16 over his last three games and 12-of-47 (25.5 percent) over his last 11 outings. The Vols were outrebounded in six of their last eight games and essentially broke even on the boards for the regular season. They were 10th in the SEC in free-throw shooting, hitting only 66.7 percent for the regular season. Only three players who see much in the way of playing time (Maze, Chism and Skylar McBee) shot better than 70 percent from the stripe.