Power-conference teams would rather play in traffic than on a mid-major's home court.
Coach Cuonzo Martin has been on both sides of the gulf. He went from small-time at Missouri State to big-time at Tennessee.
As a result, he knows how that perceived gulf, isn't in fact very wide.
That's why, when scheduling No. 23 Wichita State to a home-and-home deal, he didn't view the Shockers as mid-major, but instead as a major RPI boost.
"You've got to be smart about who you play," said Martin, whose Vols will face the Shockers today (TV: MyVLT, 7 p.m.) at Thompson-Boling Arena. "(Wichita State) is a very talented team. You want to give those team opportunities, but it depends on what their personnel is and what your personnel is. You don't just schedule games just to schedule them. It has to be a quality opponent. (Wichita State) has a tremendous RPI."
No. 18 as of Wednesday, to be exact, and it's no fluke. The Shockers have finished the last three seasons at No. 49, No. 35 and No. 18 in the RPI.
Those last two numbers are considerably better than where UT finished in those seasons.
According to Martin, Tennessee first pursued "name" power-conference teams for games, with little success, before reaching out to Wichita State and Xavier for games. Both are coming to Knoxville this year, but then UT has to return the favor. Few teams from BCS conferences are interested in taking on that challenge.
"Because I've been (at the mid-major level), I don't get consumed with that," Martin said. "The one thing about it is, there are BCS teams we called that didn't want to play. Now you're trying to find games. We needed to find a quality opponent. At the end of the day, it really matters in March."
Wichita State comes from the better-than-you-think Missouri Valley Conference, same as Missouri State. The league has as many teams (two) ranked in the top 25 as the SEC. Most attention this season is paid to No. 16 Creighton, but very quietly, the Shockers have snuck out to a 9-0 start and into the rankings.
They'll go for 10-0 — the best start in school history — against Tennessee (4-3).
"We've told the team that Wichita isn't just ranked 23rd, they could very well actually be the 23rd best team in the country," said UT assistant Kent Williams, who dropped 2,012 career points on MVC foes from 2000-03 as a star at Southern Illinois. "It's a great program. It's not like they all the sudden popped up. We will say it to the guys, but there is no way to prepare for how these teams approach a game against a school like Tennessee."
Like an NCAA tournament game, that's how. With few opportunities to play games to bolster their NCAA tournaments resumes, MVC teams view games like this one as name-makers.
Want national attention as a mid-major? Beating a team picked to finish fourth in the SEC on its home court is a good start.
Williams' message to the Vols: "It's not a regular game to them, even if it is to you."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn