Published March 27, 2010
ST. LOUIS (AP) — With his hands flashing and fingers pointing, the moderator of the news conference looked like a cross between a referee and an overzealous flight attendant, and Bobby Maze just couldn't resist.
The Tennessee guard started imitating him — subtly, of course, his fingers hidden behind his name card and his face blank. But Wayne Chism caught on eventually and tipped off Scotty Hopson, who burst into giggles.
Yes, the Volunteers are well aware fifth-seeded Michigan State is college basketball royalty, such a regular at the regional finals in recent years the Spartans may as well include it in their preseason itinerary. And that sixth-seeded Tennessee is a rookie, making its very first appearance in the round of eight Sunday.
But if anyone expects Tennessee (28-8) to be intimidated or feel even the tiniest bit overwhelmed, well, they don't know the Vols.
"Our team likes to be free, our team likes to have fun," Chism said. "If we're not doing what we usually do, our team's not comfortable."
Tennessee has long been a powerhouse — in women's hoops. On the men's side? Not so much. When the Vols made the NIT semifinals four years ago, coach Bruce Pearl said the band and the cheerleaders didn't even make the trip to Madison Square Garden.
"We looked like an SEC football school that was trying to play basketball," Pearl said. "It was embarrassing, and it was something we talked about trying not to (have) happen again."
No worries about that now.
Using the relentless defense he learned as a Big Ten assistant, Pearl has turned the Volunteers into one of the Southeastern Conference's elite. Tennessee's 28 victories are the second-most in school history, and they include regular-season upsets of Kansas and Kentucky, the two teams that were favored to win the national title coming into the tournament.
The Vols advanced to the second week of the tournament for the third time in four years and, by beating second-seeded Ohio State on Friday night, finally got to a regional final. Lasted longer than the Lady Vols, too, who lost to Baylor on Saturday in the regional semifinals of the NCAA women's tournament.
While Pearl acknowledged that his phone has been "blowing up," he said the tight turnaround hasn't left Tennessee any time to get caught up in its accomplishments or get sidetracked from its usual road-game routine.
"We're trying not to be any different than we normally are," he said, drawing a big smile from burly center Brian Williams when he mentioned the team would be going out for barbecue later. "I don't want them in the hotel room, locked in their rooms thinking about everything. We'll get them together and go back and watch some more tape on the opponent.
"But just keep doing what we're doing."
It's that mindset that has made Michigan State (27-8) so successful for so many years.
After serving as Jud Heathcote's longtime assistant, Izzo took over as Michigan State's coach in 1995. Three seasons later, the Spartans made the Final Four. The next year, Michigan State won its second national title.
Though Izzo has had NBA-caliber stars and role players whose basketball careers ended in East Lansing, Mich., his teams have never changed. The Spartans play defense, defense and more defense. If you want the basketball, Izzo once told Durrell Summers, then go get rebounds, on offense and defense.
That style of play isn't exactly pretty, and it often costs the Spartans style points in the polls during the regular season. But come tournament time, it's teams that play hard-nosed defense that advance.
Since making that first Final Four under Izzo in '99, the Spartans have returned four times. No other team in the country has that kind of track record in that time span. Not Kentucky, not Kansas, not UCLA, not North Carolina.
"Final Fours are a big thing in this program," Draymond Green said. "We know what we have to do, and we know what we need to do, and we know what it takes to get there."
Izzo has gotten it down to such a science that he rotates players in and out without skipping a beat. When Kalin Lucas sprained his ankle at Wisconsin and missed the next game, against Illinois, the Spartans struggled, and Korie Lucious admits he wasn't ready for the responsibility of running the team.
When Lucas ruptured his Achilles' tendon last weekend, Michigan State rolled right on.
"(My teammates) have just been staying on me, telling me to just keep playing, keep my focus. So this time around, I was ready," said Lucious, who had 10 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals against Northern Iowa on Friday night.
And they'll be ready for Tennessee, too.
"Coach has built a legacy here that Final Fours are important," Raymar Morgan said. "Every year, that's our goal."