Cuonzo Martin previews the NIT
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.