LAHAINA, Hawaii — The Tennessee men's basketball team left Hawaii on Thursday night after a 1-2 performance in the Maui Invitational, but the Vols took an important step from a perception standpoint that figures to bode well for their future scheduling.
UT has been in negotiations to get into an ESPN-associated early season tournament in Puerto Rico next season, in addition to setting up its four-year exemption trip overseas for this summer.
The number of fans a team can bring factors into being invited to tournaments much like it does football bowl selections.
Maui Invitational chairman Dave Odom said he already has UT under consideration for the 2015 tournament (when they are eligible to come to Hawaii again) despite its relatively small fan turnout this week.
"That was totally about the coaching change, and I don't hold that against Cuonzo (Martin) because he had a lot of things to get done with his program,'' Odom said Wednesday. "Had their not been a coaching change, there would have been a very representative crowd here from Tennessee.''
While Kansas, Duke and Memphis brought followings of approximately 1,000, Tennessee and Michigan were the only schools to fall short of their 300-ticket allotment, Odom said.
But the tournament chairman also said Martin and the Vols more than held up their end of the bargain on the basketball court in hard-fought losses to No. 6 Duke (77-67) and No. 8 Memphis (99-97, double overtime) before their win over Chaminade (86-60) on Wednesday.
"When I look at their performance, even though they played in the consolation bracket and last-place game, I think that's misleading,'' Odom said. "Their performance here was much better than the record shows, and I am glad I was here to see it with my own eyes rather than hear about it.
"It encourages me to continue to watch their progress over the next couple of years and see how they recruit and continue to build their program under Cuonzo.''
Odom, who coached at South Carolina as well as Wake Forest, said he has a respect for Tennessee basketball fans.
"Football is important there, but it's a large enough school that it has its own basketball following, and Tennessee fans like and will support their basketball,'' he said. "You can't say that about every SEC school. Kentucky obviously sets the standard, but after that you have Tennessee and Arkansas. I'm giving Mississippi State a chance next year because I have a lot of respect for (coach) Rick Stansbury.''
Martin said he realizes how important it is that the Vols represent themselves in a positive manner to earn future invites to marquee events.
"I think our team has brought a lot to the table and earned some respect,'' Martin said. "Regardless of what has happened over the last year, we're still Tennessee, and the fans want to see our guys competing at the highest level and representing the university in the right way.
"Regardless of how many showed up, we really appreciate the ones that are here.''
Martin said he hopes the Vols can increase their attendance once back in Knoxville, but he understands it could take time to get all of the fans back on board after an NCAA investigation and the firing of Bruce Pearl and three of his assistants.
"Tennessee has been through a lot in the last year, and I think it's a deal where they want to see what the coach brings to the table,'' Martin said. "All I can say right now is our guys will play hard, and they will do it on a consistent basis regardless of outcome.''
Tennessee has played in two early season tournaments in Puerto Rico, most recently Dec. 21-23 in 1999, when former coach Jerry Green went 2-1 in Bayamon. The Vols beat American-Puerto Rico and Southern Illinois before losing to Tulsa in the final. Former coach Wade Houston took UT to San Juan in 1991 from Nov. 29 through Dec. 1. The Vols beat American-Puerto Rico before losing to TCU and Miami.