ST. LOUIS — Tennessee overcame the embarrassment of player arrests and the loss of its star player to go farther in the NCAA tournament than any Volunteers squad in history.
Senior point guard Bobby Maze isn’t satisfied with that, though.
The Vols fell one basket short of their first Final Four, losing 70-69 to Michigan State in the Midwest Regional final Sunday.
“It’s going to stick with us,” Maze said. “Anytime we watch college games or during tournament time, we’ll always come back to that very moment where we were just too short, especially when you only lose by one point.”
Coach Bruce Pearl has rewritten Tennessee’s history books, reaching 20 wins in each of his five seasons and taking the Vols to the NCAA’s round of 16 three times. He recognizes the importance of having almost made it to the national semifinals.
But he’s just as disappointed as Maze.
“We came to this regional to win it and get to the Final Four,” Pearl said. “But I’m proud of our basketball program, the way we represented. I think our basketball program took a major step thanks to these (players).
“But this one here won’t go away — forever.”
Maze and his teammates might have been the only ones who expected the Vols to advance after the Jan. 1 arrests of four Tennessee players rewrote the path they would take to get there.
Tennessee’s depth was hurting before the season even began. Forward Emmanuel Negedu was sidelined after suffering sudden cardiac arrest, and guard Josh Tabb left school to be near his sick mother.
On New Year’s Day, less than 24 hours after beating rival Memphis, police in Knoxville pulled over a car driven by sophomore guard Cameron Tatum for speeding. Inside they found illegally altered guns and marijuana.
Tatum, junior center Brian Williams, junior guard Melvin Goins and senior forward Tyler Smith — the team captain — were arrested, and Pearl suspended them immediately. Pearl dismissed Smith after learning the guns belonged to him and that he would plead guilty to misdemeanor gun charges.
Williams pleaded guilty to misdemeanor drug possession and missed nine games during his suspension. Tatum pleaded guilty to speeding, and charges against Goins were dropped. The pair missed four games.
The six scholarship players and four walk-ons remaining did the improbable. They upset No. 1 Kansas 76-68, getting a highlight-making fading 3-point shot from walk-on Skylar McBee late to seal the win.
The success continued after Williams, Goins and Tatum returned. The Vols upset No. 2 Kentucky 73-62, becoming the first team to beat the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the same season since 2001-02.
It wasn’t enough to help Tennessee earn any Southeastern Conference titles, and the Vols crumbled in a 74-45 loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament semifinals. It was Pearl’s most lopsided loss and likely cost the Vols some favor with the selection committee, which tabbed them as a No. 6 seed for the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee showed the resilience that had been the hallmark of its regular season in wins over San Diego State, Ohio and Ohio State en route to the regional final matchup with Michigan State.
The resilience was largely in part to the leadership of seniors Maze, center Wayne Chism and guard J.P. Prince. The trio helped keep their teammates motivated by being vocal in the locker room, scoring at clutch moments or keeping things light by having fun.
“I’m just proud of my team for what we overcame this season and the way we came together and put on a nice run like we did,” said Chism, who with 141 games played has suited up more than any other Tennessee player in history. “This team would never have been anywhere without us three seniors and coach keeping us motivated and together the whole time.”
Chism led the squad with 12.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game and totaled 48 blocks. Prince added 9.9 points and 3.1 assists per game and had 57 steals. Maze averaged 9.4 points and 3.1 assists.
They’ll be a tough act to follow.
Pearl has signed guards Trae Golden and Jordan McRae and power forward Tobias Harris for 2010, and the recruiting class is ranked fourth nationally by Rivals.com
But there’s no clear leader waiting in the wings to replace the leadership of the departing seniors.
That kind of challenge hasn’t prevented Pearl before, and if this season’s finish is any proof, it won’t hinder the 2010-11 Vols.
We’ve got some great kids coming in,” Pearl said. “We’re going to be a good basketball team next year again, and we’re very blessed.”