Cuonzo Martin previews the NIT
Tennessee will play in the National Invitation Tournament, not the NCAA tournament, but first-year coach Cuonzo Martin says it’s still basketball.
“The rims are still 10 feet, and if you’re a ballplayer you can play on any stage,” Martin said Sunday night after watching the NIT selection show with members of the media in the UT men’s basketball office. “We’re a number one seed in the NIT tournament, now let’s roll.”
The Vols (18-14), one of four No. 1 seeds in the 32-team tournament, open the NIT at 8 p.m. Tuesday (TV: ESPNU) at Thompson-Boling Arena against Savannah State (21-11), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions.
UT never has faced the Tigers, but the Vols are 3-0 all-time against current members of the MEAC.
With a victory, UT would advance to play the winner of Tuesday’s 9:15 p.m. game between Marshall (21-13) and Middle Tennessee State (25-6) at a yet-to-be-determined date in Thompson-Boling Arena. As a No. 1 seed, the Vols will continue hosting games until the NIT semifinals, which take place at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 27 and March 29.
This is Tennessee’s 12th appearance in the NIT and its first since 2004. The Vols have never won the NIT title and enter Tuesday’s game having lost four straight NIT games dating back to a 1992 win over Alabama-Birmingham.
Martin put his team through a short practice on Sunday before watching the NCAA tournament selection show in private with his team.
“The guys were into practice, because we made them be into it with some of the drills we did ... so they didn’t have a choice but to be into it,” Martin said with a chuckle. “I thought it was important we watch the (selection) show together as a team, whether we were in or out. The guys were fine; of course they wanted to get in, thinking maybe it was 50-50, but they’ll be fine.”
It’s the first time the Vols haven’t played in the NCAA tournament in seven years, ending a streak of six straight appearances that stands as the school record and was the longest-active streak in the SEC.
Martin, whose team was picked to finish 11th in the SEC and lost four starters off last season’s team, said that for him, it was a matter of being realistic about not making the NCAA tournament.
“As a coach, I can’t be upset because of the progress we made,” Martin said. “Our goal is to make the NCAA tournament every year, and barring injuries, we have the talent to do that every year.
“But this isn’t disappointing this season considering where we started from.”
Former UT coach Don DeVoe, who serves on the NIT selection committee, said the Vols could make great strides by playing deep into the NIT.
“Cuonzo did a great job and Tennessee deserved the opportunity to extend their season,” DeVoe said Sunday night. “I know a lot of people are disappointed they lost to Ole Miss, but this can be a really special thing for the team and a springboard into the future.”
The Vols have won eight of their past 10 games under Martin, finishing second in the SEC via tiebreaker with a 10-6 league mark. A costly 77-72 overtime defeat to Ole Miss in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament on Friday in New Orleans Arena popped UT’s NCAA tournament bubble.
Tennessee finished with the No. 85 RPI and the No. 40 strength of schedule. Savannah State has the No. 191 RPI and earned an automatic bid to the NIT by winning the MEAC’s regular-season crown. The Tigers had won 13 in a row before losing to Hampton in the first round of the MEAC tournament.
The Vols have a 12-11 all-time mark in the NIT in 11 previous trips but have failed to get out of the first round in their past three appearances.
UT’s most recent NIT appearance, in 2004 under former coach Buzz Peterson, ended with an opening-round loss at George Mason, 58-55. Peterson’s Vols were knocked out of the NIT in Thompson-Boling Arena the season before, falling to Georgetown, 70-60, in 2003.
In 1996, coach Kevin O’Neill was at the helm when the College of Charleston came into Knoxville and eliminated the Vols in the first round by 55-49 count.
The 1992 Vols were the most recent to score a victory in an NIT game, winning at Alabama-Birmingham, 71-68, under coach Wade Houston. Houston’s Vols were then eliminated in the second round at Virginia, 77-52.
Martin’s Missouri State team played in the NIT last season after finishing with a 26-9 record and the No. 43 RPI. The Bears were left out of the NCAA tournament after failing to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
Missouri State beat Murray State, 89-76, before being eliminated at Miami, 81-72.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32