Mike Strange: Vols head to quieter side of March Madness

Mike Strange

Cuonzo Martin previews the NIT

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Quick, name the reigning National Invitation Tournament champion.

Not many folks who don't live in Sedgwick County, Kansas, could provide the correct answer: Wichita State.

After six years and several shining moments in the Big Dance, Tennessee is about to embark on the quieter side of March Madness.

The games are 40 minutes long. The other guys aren't going to concede a layup. The pressure to survive and advance is just as real.

There just won't be as many people watching or caring. It'll be harder to find a bracket pool.

The secret to success in the NIT is whether the Vols care. This is an event in which self-motivation goes a long way.

Tennessee's first NIT game in nine years is Tuesday night. Savannah State won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular season title, but got upset in the MEAC tournament.

Thus both teams will have to get past the disappointment of not seeing their names in the 68-team bracket that was unveiled three hours before the NIT went public.

The Vols feel like they were one win away, but that win slipped away in a 77-72 overtime loss to Ole Miss on Friday night in the SEC tournament.

Going by the numbers, Tennessee with its RPI of 85 wasn't close to the NCAA cutoff.

West Virginia was the at-large invitee with the highest RPI at 56. South Florida (53), Virginia (52) and N.C. State (49) were

the other at-larges at the high end of the spectrum.

Marshall, a potential NIT second-round opponent for UT, took snub honors with the lowest RPI at 42.

The Vols' February body of work was nearly flawless, but the big picture wasn't as pretty.

UT was 4-7 against top-50 teams, 7-11 against top 100. That's not the bad news.

This was: three losses against teams ranked 100 or higher. And three of UT's wins came against the worst teams in the nation. Chattanooga, Louisiana Monroe and Citadel were a combined 15-70.

And, of course, Chaminade, a Division II member, didn't even count.

So on to the NIT, in which 32 teams try to get to the Final Four in New York. It's an attractive reward for toiling through three rounds in the shadow of the NCAA's marquee event.

Naturally, all 344 Division I teams would rather be in the Big Dance, but the NIT isn't just for the Wichita States and Tulsas of the world. Champions in the past decade include Ohio State, West Virginia, Michigan, St. John's and Memphis.

It's a more legitimate tournament since the NCAA took over operation in 2005. The selection, seeding and scheduling processes make for better balance.

Eleven automatic bids went to teams who won regular-season conference titles only to get upset in their tournament. Thus, for folks like Bucknell, MTSU, Drexel and Oral Roberts it's a welcome second chance.

For BCS-league leftovers like UT, Mississippi State and Washington, it's a test of will.

As one of the four teams awarded No. 1 seeds, Tennessee has a legitimate chance of getting to New York. Only two NIT entrants, Marshall and Northwestern, played a schedule ranked tougher than the Vols' No. 31.

On March 29 in Madison Square Garden, someone is going to cut down the nets and become 2012 NIT champion.

The rest of the world will little note nor long remember. But if you're going to go at all, might as well go all in.

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 » 6

HoustonVol writes:

I have a feeling if UT ends up in the NIT (we can always hope for NCAA), that coach Zo will have them ready to play. This team fought for everything in the last half of the season, and there is no reason to believe that they will not keep fight in the NIT.

Vol1973 writes:

Make us proud Vols !! GBO

mocsandvolsfan writes:

We'll remember and we'll NOT be NIT next season. This will be good practice for the NCAA next year. We will have to take it serious though to win it. Again one at a time.
UT fans won't remember the NCAA champion.hehe

CoverOrange writes:

"UT was 4-7 against top-50 teams, 7-11 against top 100"

Please compare/contrast that mark to UConn or Iona.

1vavolfan writes:

What a dumb article, it could easliy be a post by one of the trolls on the site. Yes, UT was 4-7 against top 50 teams,but those 4 wins are more than most of the teams that made the NCAA's and 2 of the losses were against Kentucky, the best team in the country.Also pointing out that we beat the Citadel, UTC, and ULM? What SEC team doesn't play teams like this?Our SOS was 31 so what is your point? When you schedule teams like this you don't know exactly how good they will be, UTC was supposed to be good this season.

BruisedOrange writes:

I may be the only one who thinks this, but...

The benefits of NIT success are maximized for a team like these Vols:
- a 1st year coach instituting a change of style
- inheriting an "empty cupboard" roster
- starting only one senior
- having already exceeded pre-season expectations.

When a team like ours plays big in the NIT, they're not writing the conclusion of this season's story. They're writing the opening of next season's story.

It's not that the nation's FANS are going to follow UT's progress in the NIT, or even watch the NIT championship game. But if you're a player who has been on UT's radar, if you've been contacted, if you're a player who can bring one of the missing pieces to Knoxville... then you will pay attention to Tennessee's progress, and be watching the NIT championship game (audience numbers don't matter--it's broadcast nation-wide) if the Vols make it.

And regarding UT's off-season coverage, there's a huge difference
between articles that begin "Although eliminated in the first-round of the NCAA..." and reading articles that start with "Coming off last season's NIT championship..."

Additionally, it doesn't hurt recruiting to be playing a few games in New York City. You can get face-to-face with a lot of young basketball talent within just a two-hour radius of Madison Square Garden.

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