Cuonzo Martin on facing the Auburn Tigers
The first shot of March Madness was fired Tuesday at noon in, of all places, Conway, S.C.
For the record, Winthrop was the first team to survive and advance on the road to the Final Four, via an opening-round victory in the Big South Conference tournament.
We are still 11 days from Selection Sunday, but the playoff has begun in earnest for teams like Winthrop, Liberty, Youngstown State and Illinois-Chicago.
For teams like Tennessee, too.
The calendar still says regular season, but in reality tonight’s visit by the Vols to Auburn says survive and (maybe) advance.
Tennessee is still trying to secure a spot on the 68 lines in the NCAA tournament bracket. Closing the regular season with wins over Auburn and Missouri is an essential preface to the SEC tournament next week in Nashville.
And, brother, could Tennessee fans ever use a pick-me-up like seeing their team in the bracket on March 17.
Spring football practice begins Saturday at UT. There’s always optimism from a fresh start and coach Butch Jones is a fresh start.
But the fact that Jones is the third fresh start in five springs is indicative of a program fallen on hard times. Two seasons without a bowl trip, five without a bowl win, and counting.
Men’s hoops carried the flag through several of those lean years. As Derek Dooley was starting his first spring practice, the Vols were in St. Louis, falling a possession short of the Final Four.
There hasn’t been much March magic since, however.
A 30-point loss to Michigan in 2011, followed by the firing of Bruce Pearl. A year ago, Cuonzo Martin’s first team came tantalizingly close to crashing the Big Dance. The NIT was the consolation prize and the Vols did little with it.
Martin’s second team has rallied to knock on the door again.
The final week of the SEC regular season will be huge in sorting out the crowd on the NCAA bubble. Of five SEC teams with legitimate hope of joining Florida and (presumably) Missouri in the bracket, the Vols have the best strength of schedule (38) and the second-best RPI (56 to Kentucky’s 51).
The contingency of life on the bubble is that first, teams have to help themselves.
But they often need help from others.
The Vols, in fact, need a favor from three in-state neighbors as the conference tournaments play out.
If we no longer consider No. 1 Gonzaga a mid-major — and I don’t — the three highest-ranking mid-majors in the RPI standings are Memphis (18), Belmont (23) and MTSU (25).
All three probably have done enough to land an at-large bid if they don’t win their conference tournaments.
So UT fans should cheer very hard for all three to avoid upsets. In fact, upsets in any of the higher mid-major tournaments are a bad thing for the Vols.
It doesn’t matter who wins the Big South or the Atlantic Sun. They’re one-bid leagues regardless. But the Vols don’t want, for example, St. Joseph’s to win the Atlantic 10. Or a Bradley to win the Missouri Valley.
Two league tournaments began Tuesday, five more launch today. In short, the chase is on.
Tennessee is in the chase. This time, a fan base needing some postseason pop in any major sport, hopes it gets to the finish line.
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.