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.