Mike Strange: Vols have excused absence from opening day

Mike Strange

Martin, Vols arrive in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS — One after another, they trooped to the podium Wednesday, expressing thanks for the opportunity to start fresh.

Everybody is 0-0. It's a one-game season. Throw out the record book. Yep, a coach actually uttered those words.

One team, though, was conspicuous by its absence.

Cuonzo Martin was supposed to be here. Wednesday is the day when the eight teams who play the opening round of the SEC men's basketball tournament meet the press and hold a shootaround on the arena floor.

The Vols were a lock to be here. That's the way we had it figured back in October. That's the way we had it figured as January ended, Tennessee returning from Lexington at 2-5 in the league.

That's still the way we had it figured a couple of weeks ago.

"What a difference two weeks makes," LSU coach Trent Johnson said Wednesday at the New Orleans Arena.

Johnson was speaking about his own team, which was riding a four-game win streak until it lost its final three of the regular season and comes limping into the tournament.

He could have been addressing the Vols, who, to virtually everyone's surprise, rattled off four consecutive wins to close the season. Their reward, among other things, is being excused from the tournament preliminaries.

All 12 coaches begin the season in November hoping that come March they will be excused from the tournament preliminaries.

If you aren't, that means you didn't earn a bye. It means your season wasn't an unqualified success. It means you play on Thursday. It means you have to win four games instead of three to claim the title and the automatic NCAA tournament bid that goes with it.

Tennessee was picked to finish 11th in a preseason media poll. A good season, then, might have been what? Aspiring to the eight-nine game on Wednesday afternoon?

But the Vols made a mockery of the form chart. The No. 2 seed seemed unthinkable until Tennessee won at South Carolina, then at LSU and then took care of Vanderbilt on Senior Day to finish 10-6.

"This is when you want to get on a run and play some of your best basketball."

That was Arkansas coach Mike Anderson. He might have been describing the Vols, winners of eight of their past nine games, rather than his own team. The Razorbacks have lost seven of nine, not the kind of run you want to get on any time of year.

Aside from Tennessee, the preseason poll wasn't far off the mark. Kentucky at the top. South Carolina at the bottom. Bingo.

Vanderbilt, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi State lined up about as projected in the upper half, each dropped one notch by the Vols' rise.

Everyone else was predictably mediocre, largely to the anticipated degree.

In short, get out the Thursday bracket and round up the usual suspects.

Except for Tennessee. The Vols will be idle, awaiting the winner of the Ole Miss-Auburn game.

"There's no pressure on us," said Auburn coach Tony Barbee. No, not when you finished 5-11 and are seeded 10th.

Not for South Carolina, either. Wednesday might have been coach Darrin Horn's final practice with the program after the SEC win total has slipped from six to five to two the past three years.

Tennessee welcomes the pressure. Bring it on. It means you're still relevant in March.

The Vols are relevant because Martin, in his first year of a rebuild, was able to exceed expectations when his counterparts were not.

Certainly, adding Jarnell Stokes to the lineup was a major bonus. Or, as LSU's Johnson put it Wednesday, "getting Wesley Unseld Jr. eligible."

But one player doesn't make the difference between 11th and second. There are other factors at play as to why Tennessee will have Thursday off and, say, Mississippi State doesn't. All of those reasons are a credit to Martin and his team.

"It's a new season," said Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury, trumpeting the theme of the day. "You don't have to be the best team for 30 games. You've just got to find a way to be the best team for four games."

In Tennessee's case, make that just three.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 14

givehim6 writes:

Better to end strong, then peak in Dec. then fade.

miatatom writes:

The comparison of Stokes to Wes Unseld is perfect. Jarnell reminds me a lot of big Wes.

GO VOLS!!!!!!

thevoice writes:

In UT's bracket, we should be pulling for any team with a high RPI, to boost ours when we play 'em. Wonder how things will look next year? Isn't Mizzu a top 5 team?

BigVolFaninSC writes:

Right on, Mr. Strange! Stokes was certainly key, but this group is playing well as a TEAM, and CCM deserves coach of the year for sure! Take 'em one at a time!

FWBVol writes:

in response to miatatom:

The comparison of Stokes to Wes Unseld is perfect. Jarnell reminds me a lot of big Wes.

GO VOLS!!!!!!

With that hook shot Stokes has there's a little Willis Reed in his game too. The thing is Jarnell can jump better than either Unseld or Reed.

69grad writes:

It will be a travesty if Coach Martin doesn't get coach of the year.

underthehill writes:

Stokes and Unseld are very similar physically..but Stokes appears to have more things you don't coach than any rebounder his age I have ever seen..anticipating where the ball is coming off..maintaining his position..and knowing where defense is coming from..his knowledge of the game is far ahead of his years..learning Martin's defense is the only difficult thing he has had to deal with..Stokes is only going to get better and he has to stay another year..

easleychuck writes:

Stansbury's point is why I dislike the cash grab that is a conference tourney. The regular season champ has earned the title for playing well over a 2 plus month period.

devo-evol writes:

i certainly believe CCM deserved COY. i mean Cal did a great job but the job by CCM is very impressive. with ncaa investigation, pearl fired in disgrace, and Hamilton fired in disgrace the best players left and recruits ran from the program it is amazing that UT is in this position right now. he righted the ship and changed the mentality and slowly molded this team into a "TEAM" and has them playing better every game. to me, that is what should determine COY not taking one of the most recognized basketball programs and pulling the best players in the country and doing what is expected. i think what CCM has done with a bunch of reserves and players "that never met potential" and coaching them up to a bubble team. i mean a coach that can make a team much better than anyone could have imagined is more impressive than basically meeting expectations.

SouthPaVol writes:

Starting the year without Harris and Hopson made for an even more difficult coaching transition. The unknown factor increased exponentially with only one returning starter, instead of the possible three. Surely November and December would have had more remarkable results with proven players and go-to guys in the lineup.

Not sure any circumstance would have kept Harris out of the NBA--even no NCAA violations, if Pearl stayed, or teammate Hopson returned. I think probably Harris was a one-and-done from the start, but Harris gave us great effort and remarkable talent for one year.

Hopson on the other hand would have helped us quite a bit in the early season. More than helping the team, Hopson would have benefited from another year in college and the CCM firm hand of coaching. Perhaps Hopson would not have responded well to the coaching change and would have been sitting next to Kenny Hall? However, I think Hopson would have liked our NEW tenacious defensive style. His flying dunks brought the crowd to its feet.

Thanks to Harris and Hopson for the memories and best of luck to both. We go forward with our new star players to beat KY and take the SEC tourney. Then as a 10-seed in the Big Dance, we beat 2-seed Duke in the second game; life is all roses. Go Vols!

CrankE writes:

"Excused absence"

Try again. They EARNED this absence.

Witch_Doctors writes:

in response to FWBVol:

With that hook shot Stokes has there's a little Willis Reed in his game too. The thing is Jarnell can jump better than either Unseld or Reed.

Witch Doctor say somebody said Moses Malone and with the soft hands outside under 15 feet, that seemed right. Witch Doctor say after next year kids will be comparing themselves to him. lol
Bones never lie.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to devo-evol:

i certainly believe CCM deserved COY. i mean Cal did a great job but the job by CCM is very impressive. with ncaa investigation, pearl fired in disgrace, and Hamilton fired in disgrace the best players left and recruits ran from the program it is amazing that UT is in this position right now. he righted the ship and changed the mentality and slowly molded this team into a "TEAM" and has them playing better every game. to me, that is what should determine COY not taking one of the most recognized basketball programs and pulling the best players in the country and doing what is expected. i think what CCM has done with a bunch of reserves and players "that never met potential" and coaching them up to a bubble team. i mean a coach that can make a team much better than anyone could have imagined is more impressive than basically meeting expectations.

There is no question that Martin has done a fantastic job this year and everybody knows it. Even though the SEC as a whole may have been slightly down this year and Vandy, Miss. St., and Florida probably didn't play up to expectations, I think the main thing that put Calipari over the top was UK going undefeated in the conference. I don't remember what UK's record was predicted to be, but I don't think anybody really expected them to run the table with three freshman starters. After all, I think I read that only three teams in history have gone undefeated in the conference. Any other year, Martin would have won COY hands down.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to Witch_Doctors:

Witch Doctor say somebody said Moses Malone and with the soft hands outside under 15 feet, that seemed right. Witch Doctor say after next year kids will be comparing themselves to him. lol
Bones never lie.

There is a bit of all of those guys in Jarnell's game. Whenever I think of Moses Malone, I am reminded of a quote a rival player offered about him. The guy was being interviewed after losing to Malone's team in a game where Moses had about 30 points and 20+ rebounds--just another ho-hum day at the office for him at his peak--and he was asked about Moses' "second effort" in the game. The guy said, "In this league, everybody has second effort; Moses has NINTH and TENTH effort!" I don't think Jarnell shows quite THAT level of energy, but then Moses was pretty much one of a kind in his prime, and Jarnell still makes a pretty major impact on his own merits.

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