Cowboy head man Travis Ford played for Pitino at Kentucky in the 1990s and coaches a system that is very similar to the one Pitino used to throttle the Vols last March.
“Yeah, it is,” UT coach Bruce Pearl conceded, qualifying that the Cowboys “don't play the 2-3 zone like Louisville does. They play it some but they don't play it as much. And they don't press quite as much as Coach Pitino's team. But they're really good in transition. I really like the way they play. I like Travis Ford's basketball.”
Pearl's fondness for Pitino's and Ford's style of play is understandable.
“I like it,” the Vol coach conceded, “because we try to play it.”
Tennessee and Louisville played essentially the same style in the NCAA Sweet 16 last March but the Cardinals played it a lot better, which is why they romped 79-60.
Louisville's lanky, long-armed defenders stifled Tennessee's offense a year ago. That should not be a problem against Oklahoma State, which features no starter taller than 6-6.
“I think we'll be able to score,” Pearl said. “The challenge is, will we able to defend? Can we stop them in transition? How will we best be able to guard their ball screens and their spread?”
Tennessee, 21-12 and seeded ninth, will be a slight underdog against an eighth-seeded Oklahoma State team that is 22-11 and has won eight of its last 10 games. Tipoff is set for 12:25 Friday afternoon in Dayton, Ohio.
“We are excited about playing Oklahoma State,” Pearl said. “The 8-9 matchups are always the most entertaining because they're so close.”
Tennessee was hoping to be a 6 or 7 seed but losses to Alabama in the regular-season finale at Knoxville and to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament finals at Tampa dashed those hopes.
As Pearl noted: “We talked about that all season long – the importance of winning these (pre-NCAA Tournament) games to get a better seed, so you don't put yourself in the position we find ourselves in ... where the road to the Four Four is treacherous.”
Oklahoma State and Tennessee met twice previously during Pearl's four-year tenure in Knoxville. The Cowboys prevailed 89-73 at Oklahoma City on Dec. 22, 2005 and the Vols returned the favor 79-77 at Nashville on Dec. 18, 2006. The Cowboys were coached by Eddie Sutton in '05 and Sean Sutton in '06. Both played a slower pace with a different group of players.
“There's not a lot carryover on the coaching staff, and there's only a couple of guys on the team,” Pearl noted, subsequently adding: “Travis has brought a different style of basketball and a new energy. I don't necessarily feel like we've developed any kind of rivalry ... more of a familiarity.”