Tennessee's Cameron Tatum is welcoming a return to Thompson-Boling Arena with open arms after kissing it goodbye.
"There's nothing like playing at home, having the crowd cheering you on," said the fifth-year senior, who kissed the Tennessee logo at center court after closing the regular season with a 68-61 win over Vanderbilt on March 3.
The Vols (18-14) open the NIT tonight (TV: ESPNU, 8 p.m.) against Savannah State (21-11) having won 12 of their past 13 home games, including the last five.
By earning one of four No. 1 seeds in the 32-team field, Tennessee could host as many as three games before traveling to New York City to play in Madison Square Garden in the semifinals (March 27) and finals (March 29).
With a victory tonight, the Vols would play the winner of tonight's game between Marshall (21-13) and Middle Tennessee State (25-6).
But Tatum, who has averaged 14 points over the past three games, said he knows better than to allow his younger teammates to get too far ahead of themselves.
"Right now we're not worried about going to Madison Square Garden," Tatum said before Monday's practice. "We're worried about getting ready for Savannah State."
The Tigers earned an automatic bid to the NIT after winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season crown. Savannah State had won 13 straight games before getting upset by Hampton in their MEAC tournament opener.
"We know any team can play well at the Division I level," said UT sophomore
Jordan McRae, who grew up close enough to Savannah that he played pickup games on the Tigers' campus. "We proved any team can play with some of the losses we had."
No doubt, the Vols — and the NCAA tournament selection committee — certainly took note of UT's 74-70 home loss to Austin Peay on Dec. 10. The loss played a large role in the Vols' finishing with a suspect 85 RPI despite playing the nation's 40th-toughest schedule.
The Governors have an RPI of 192 — Savannah State's is 191.
"It definitely feels good to be playing in front of the fans; our crowd always brings great energy," McRae said. "But (the Tigers) mentality is gonna be this is their chance to really shine by playing a big school on ESPN, so they're gonna come out playing hard against us."
UT junior Skylar McBee, coming off a 15-point effort in the 77-72 overtime loss to Ole Miss at the SEC tournament in New Orleans last Friday, said he believes the Vols will be ready to match the Tigers' intensity.
"A lot of it has to do with Coach (Cuonzo) Martin; he's not going to allow us to be down in the dumps," McBee said. "We've been playing really well at home,and I look for that to keep going."
Tatum said he's determined to finish his career in Thompson-Boling with a win.
"That's my intention now," Tatum said, "but more so for the team's purpose."
This marks the Vols' 12th appearance in the NIT. Tennessee is 12-11 all-time in the tournament, though it has dropped four straight and hasn't won an NIT game since scoring a 71-68 victory over Alabama-Birmingham in Thompson-Boling Arena in 1992.
Free Tickets: The first 500 students in line at Thompson-Boling Arena receive free admission. After the first 500, UT students will be admitted for $4. All other seats are general admission and cost $10 apiece.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32