Cuonzo Martin on upcoming game against MTSU
Spring break arrived at the University of Tennessee on Friday. You might have noticed the campus exodus.
Spring break might mean 4-for-1 beer specials in Panama City or perhaps just filling up on mama's cooking in the old hometown. Either approach, it's R&R time.
For the UT men's basketball team, however, spring break means noses to the grindstone.
It means standing on full alert, defending your turf against a formidable and motivated invader.
It means practice, watching videotape and showing up for team meals. Business as usual, in other words.
And it could, ultimately, mean an all-expenses-paid trip to New York.
The Vols resume play tonight in the National Invitation Tournament. Middle Tennessee State visits Thompson-Boling Arena.
The NIT is about commitment level as much as talent. If you want to hang around and end up in Madison Square Garden, it's definitely not about R&R.
"I haven't been on spring break in probably seven or eight years,'' said Cameron Tatum. "This is what I've been doing for most of my life so I don't even know the meaning of spring break.''
Tatum is a fifth-year senior playing the final minutes and games of his career. After the Vanderbilt game on March 3, he kissed the Thompson-Boling court, thinking he would never play a game on it again.
But last week, there he was. Tennessee didn't get the NCAA tournament invite and settled for the NIT.
The Vols handled their first order of business, subduing Savannah State
65-51. The winner of tonight's game plays either Miami or Minnesota on Wednesday for the right to advance to the semifinals in New York next week.
"I haven't ever got to go on a spring break either,'' said junior Skylar McBee.
"This is what we're built for. We signed up for college basketball. That's part of it, part of making sacrifices.''
Making sacrifices for the glory of the Big Dance is one thing. It's a little tougher to bear down for the NIT. That's a new test for Tennessee's players.
Jordan McRae recounted a trip to dinner Thursday with several teammates. Guess what was on all the TV screens in the restaurant?
"We were just saying, we should be there (in the NCAA tournament),'' said McRae. "We had people coming up to us telling us we should be playing.
"It definitely hurts. But since we're not in it, we've got to make the best of this tournament.''
Making the best of tonight will demand a different level of intensity and execution than last week. MTSU is superior to Savannah State in personnel — and in that other all-important category, motivation.
"Any in-state game we consider a rivalry,'' said UT freshman Jarnell Stokes. "We know they're good.
"They think they should have been in the (NCAA) tournament so it'll be a great game.''
It'll be a great game provided Tennessee can win it. That would earn the Vols another home game on Wednesday. The Vols are 80 minutes from the payoff.
If you're going to sacrifice spring break for basketball, a trip to New York is a nice alternative.