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.