Mike Strange: Vols still 'have a lot to prove'

Mike Strange
The Tennessee Volunteers men's basketball team stretches prior to practice at Holy Cross School in New Orleans, La., Thursday, March 8, 2012. Tennessee will take on the winner of the Ole Miss and Auburn game on Friday.  (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Adam Brimer, copyright © 2012

The Tennessee Volunteers men's basketball team stretches prior to practice at Holy Cross School in New Orleans, La., Thursday, March 8, 2012. Tennessee will take on the winner of the Ole Miss and Auburn game on Friday. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Cameron Tatum on UT's first SEC tournament game

NEW ORLEANS — Senior Day, wow, what a great scene, beating Vanderbilt in front of a packed house.

Sunday, more good news. That No. 2 SEC tournament seed, unthinkable a couple of weeks ago, became a reality.

By Monday, bubble status confirmed. The NCAA bracketologists know you're alive after all.

Thursday, sitting in the hotel with a first-round bye. Keeping the legs fresh.

And now it's Friday. Time for Tennessee to start walking the walk again.

"Pretty much everything we've done in the SEC regular season is out the window,'' Cameron Tatum said Thursday. "It means absolutely nothing right now.

"Everything is on a clean slate.''

Tennessee did a lot in the SEC regular season. A 10-6 record, winning eight of its last nine. That was far more than anybody expected of a new coach and a rebuilding team.

The accolades have rolled in of late. But Tatum is right. The Vols can ill afford to bask in applause tonight at the New Orleans Arena.

If they do, Ole Miss gladly will pop their bubble.

The Rebels bounced Auburn, 68-54, Thursday night. UT coach Cuonzo Martin was courtside. His one-word summation of tonight's battle: "Physical.''

Good call. Ole Miss relentlessly pounded the glass, outrebounding Auburn 45-31. Nineteen offensive rebounds led to 19 second-chance points.

"We won in typical Ole Miss fashion,'' said coach Andy Kennedy. "It was a grind, it always is.''

Not an opponent to face if you're feeling anything short of belligerent. Nice guys will finish second tonight.

But the Vols can grind, too. Aside from No. 1-ranked and No. 1-seed Kentucky, no team arrived in town with more momentum than Tennessee. It's Martin's job to make sure the momentum doesn't die in the face of a Rebel assault.

It's not uncommon for a team's psyche to change — for better or worse — between the end of the regular season and the crazy phenomenon that follows known as March Madness.

"It's a little different (mindset),'' said junior Skylar McBee, "because it's lose one time and you're at the house.''

Lose one time and the Vols are at the NIT.

The biggest carrot dangling this weekend is the NCAA tournament. Short of winning the SEC tournament trophy on Sunday, Tennessee hopes to enhance its at-large credentials with a couple of wins.

But that's not the only motivational card the Vols have to play.

"We've still got that chip,'' said Jeronne Maymon, UT's second-team All-SEC stalwart. "People are still looking at us like we're not supposed to be (the) number two (seed).

"We've got to prove 'em wrong.''

There is truth there. UT was picked to finish 11th in a preseason poll. A rash of December losses to mid-majors reinforced that bleak projection.

And yet on the final day of the regular season, the Vols claimed the No. 2 seed in a tiebreaker with Vanderbilt and Florida, a pair of preseason top-10 national picks who were either overrated or underachieved.

It's rare a No. 2 seed in a major conference tournament is still trying to play its way into the Big Dance. But Tennessee's unattractive RPI has been an anchor to drag around since December.

This week is a new scenario. In six years under Bruce Pearl the Vols arrived for the SEC tournament with their NCAA resume secure. They were playing for seeding, not survival.

The last time UT was in play-in mode was 2003, coincidentally the last time the tournament was in New Orleans.

A first-game loss to Auburn doomed the Vols to the NIT. Coach Buzz Peterson said later he learned UT was the last team left on the bubble.

That's about how close a call it will be this weekend. Will two more wins be enough? Would one?

Considering where this team started and even where it was a month ago, there is no shame in settling for an NIT bid. No matter what happens in the next 24 to 72 hours, Tennessee has salvaged a successful season.

Still, the Vols are right to want more.

"We're proud of the work we've done,'' said Tatum, "but nobody even remembers us being number two.''

Basketball is the ultimate postseason sport. What people do remember is whether you made the NCAA bracket and what you do once in it.

If the Vols can still walk the walk they just might get there.

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 » 18

wigmeister writes:

Always tough to beat a team twice in one season. They will know us now and will be prepared for the game. They will also have payback on their minds. We will need to play our best the whole weekend to make it into the big dance!

WetumpkaThumpa writes:

I just hope that Trae and Jeronne are no longer out in downtown New Orleans as Trae tweeted earlier. I hope they realize that this trip is not a vacation.

underthehill writes:

No question..this team will give it all they got..can't ask for more..either way it goes..it's been very interesting...

Witch_Doctors writes:

in response to WetumpkaThumpa:

I just hope that Trae and Jeronne are no longer out in downtown New Orleans as Trae tweeted earlier. I hope they realize that this trip is not a vacation.

Witch Doctor starting to believe we have a good reason to trust this coach and his judgement. lol
Bones never lie.

WetumpkaThumpa writes:

in response to Witch_Doctors:

Witch Doctor starting to believe we have a good reason to trust this coach and his judgement. lol
Bones never lie.

I trust this coach and his judgement, not sure I trust his player's judgement yet considering our history in the SEC Tourney. I would feel a whole lot better about the game tomorrow had I not seen Trae's tweet about being excited to go downtown with Jeronne on the eve of the biggest game of their careers. Pretty sure you wont read anything like that coming from Calipari's guys. Hopefully, Trae and company were going downtown to scout their opponent and not Bourbon Street.

AllVols16 writes:

The Vols will come ready to play and take it to Ole Miss and be playing on Saturday for an oppurtunity to be in SEC Championship!

tenuscvol writes:

Good article Mike....enjoyed reading it.

I don't think Ole miss looked that formidable.

Go Vols!

CaliVOL2 writes:

I was just at Harrah's Casino in downtown New Orleans and ran into 3 Ole Miss players. I like our chances.

SeminaryVol writes:

in response to WetumpkaThumpa:

I trust this coach and his judgement, not sure I trust his player's judgement yet considering our history in the SEC Tourney. I would feel a whole lot better about the game tomorrow had I not seen Trae's tweet about being excited to go downtown with Jeronne on the eve of the biggest game of their careers. Pretty sure you wont read anything like that coming from Calipari's guys. Hopefully, Trae and company were going downtown to scout their opponent and not Bourbon Street.

Cal put a curfew on the team after a couple of player's got into a car wreck at 2 AM on the night before a game early in the season.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

BEAT Ole Miss

AllVols16 writes:

Is Stokes still having flu like symptoms??

devo-evol writes:

I hope CCM's discipline and focus will stay with this team. They have a great chance here and I hope they realize that they have to play like there is no tomorrow. I look forward seeing a decent UT contingent there to root them on. I am very excited this team is getting better every game. Look at what UConn did last year. Just sayin'. Go Vols!

johnlg00 writes:

Let's hope all the buzz about the team these days doesn't lull the guys into a false sense of security. Just because they beat Ole Miss at TBA doesn't mean they will just roll over them in New Orleans. They have the size, strength, and defense to give UT a very rough evening, especially considering that the Vols are streaky to say the least from the outside and will be playing their first game in an unfamiliar gym. Ole Miss' big men are great offensive rebounders, so the Vols will have to have all five guys on the defensive boards which will cut down on their open-court opportunities. This will be a rugged, grinding game, and the Vols can't afford to be loose with the ball or indecisive around the glass. If they take of business and don't forget how they got where they are, they should get the W but don't expect the Rebs to give it to them.

spacehistorian writes:

My wife ran into the players, coaches and their families at the Sheraton in downtown New Orleans. She was at a nursing conference there but she wore a nice Tennessee knit shirt. She was in line for some food during a break and a Sheraton employee asked her if she was with the nursing conference. My wife flashed her ID badge and all was okay. They clearly didn't want Tennessee fans sneaking in for free food at the conference. She spoke to some of the players and one of the assistant coaches. She can't go to the game tonight due to the conference so she asked the guys to win tonight so she can go with me to tomorrow's game. They all said the same thing... they take it one game at a time and no promises even though they clearly believe they will be playing Sunday for the SEC Tournament Title. So even behind the scenes they are keeping humble and staying focused to play one game at a time. So let's kick Ole Miss' butts so my wife can enjoy the semi-final tomorrow at the Arena. I think with a win over Ole Miss we will get into the NCAA Tournament and with two wins I am sure we will. Of course if we win it all the NCAA invite is automatic which would be great. GBO!!!

brokendownoldvol writes:

Thank goodness Ole Miss. suks as bad as TN........

EarthBoundMisfit writes:

N-I-T N-I-T N-I-T
N-I-T N-I-T N-I-T
N-I-T N-I-T N-I-T
N-I-T N-I-T N-I-T
N-I-T N-I-T N-I-T
N-I-T N-I-T N-I-T
N-I-T N-I-T N-I-T
N-I-T N-I-T N-I-T

jdogg44 writes:

Ok, I'm saying it. The Refs were on the take. Everyone saw the ball go off Ole Miss Player Henry's face with 14 seconds left. Auburn point shaving and now the SEC tourney Ref scandal. I can't ACT like "oh, these things just happen." when everyone watching in the arena AND on TV know what the deal is.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to kiffinsux:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I agree. To me, the Vols lost the game in the first half when Ole Miss' two big guys, Buckner and Holloway, had two fouls each in the first eight minutes or so and the Vols failed to cash in inside. During that stretch, they took too many outside shots with too much time on the shot clock and didn't make enough of them. It is good to a point that Martin, as a rule, doesn't yank guys too quickly for MISSING shots, but he needs to be a good deal tougher on them for taking BAD shots, i.e., darn near any 3-pointer with more than 15 seconds on the shot clock unless they have gone inside first. In the heat of the battle, too many of these guys still don't seem to understand that the Vols' inside game MUST prosper for this team to win against good competition; the strength of this team is just NOT on the perimeter this year. Yes, they have to be able to score out there most games, but the inside game absolutely MUST come first.

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