Mike Strange: UT fan base could use a lift from March Madness

Mike Strange
Tennessee guard Armani Moore (4) shoots as Florida guard Casey Prather (24) defends along with guard Scottie Wilbekin (5) during the second half at Thompson-Boling Arena Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. Tennessee won 64-58 over Florida. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Adam Brimer

Tennessee guard Armani Moore (4) shoots as Florida guard Casey Prather (24) defends along with guard Scottie Wilbekin (5) during the second half at Thompson-Boling Arena Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. Tennessee won 64-58 over Florida. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

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 strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.

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Comments » 24

johnlg00 writes:

Best time of the year for college basketball fans! It would be a huge breath of fresh air for Vol fans if the men were still relevant by this time two weeks from now. If they are once again relegated to the NIT, they should TRY to embrace the chance to show the NCAAs what they are missing and lay a foundation for a leap forward next year.

brod writes:

gotta get there first. our sec tourney track record is one of disappointments, not lifts.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

I suspect NIT is our answer this year. But we may get in the NCAA still. It's certainly been talked about. C'MON VOLS!!! Win out and win the tourney and who knows how far you can go from there?

Regardless this has been a fun year to watch. well maybe fun is not exactly the right word. But honestly I did enjoy the maturation of the team without Maymon. And as has been said many times I think we'd have done really well with him.

We may still click here at the end of all things.hehe

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

Losing to GA hurt more than some of these writers are letting on..To most who don't follow SEC ball it is really a bad loss but in reality GA has some excellent young talent to go along with Pope, who gets my vote for SEC player of the year..If you catch the Dogs on a good shooting night they will most certainly beat you and if they don't regress in the tourney they could be the spoiler..The Mizzo game is the must win!! They are a lock for the tourney and have tons of talent to go with a solid coach..Beat them and Auburn then we might be back in the chase...Anything less than it's back to the NIT..Don't much like our chances in the SEC tourney because it's a good chance we face Ole Miss or Bama in 2nd round and our record against them is 1 and 3

Banner writes:

No chance of getting in. Nobody has us in the 64 except the writers in Kville.

Rumblefish writes:

in response to Banner:

No chance of getting in. Nobody has us in the 64 except the writers in Kville.

espn has us in. not sure why. maybe b/c we are playing good late.

http://espn.go.com/blog/collegebasket...

movinonup writes:

Wanted everyone to see this article on Robert Hubbs.....good kid who can flat out play. Look forward to seeing him next year !

http://www.stategazette.com/story/194...

johnlg00 writes:

in response to movinonup:

Wanted everyone to see this article on Robert Hubbs.....good kid who can flat out play. Look forward to seeing him next year !

http://www.stategazette.com/story/194...

Thanks for the link! Great article! Hubbs looks like the kind of kid who can be the foundation for the kind of program Martin looks to build after all the Pearl holdovers are gone. I am in NO way disparaging the way the holdovers bought into CCM's way of doing things. They have clearly blossomed as players and seem to be good people as well. This year's freshmen will have one more year to grow and improve before they will have to carry most of the weight. Hubbs looks to be one who can contribute immediately, and the year after that he may be at least the equal of McRae right now. The Davis kid will have next year to get his feet wet and start the process of growing into the player they will need the following year. In short, if Hubbs turns out to be the kind of player everybody thinks he is, the Vols should be just fine even after losing many contributors from what should be an outstanding team in 2013-4.

bUTch_please writes:

in response to movinonup:

Wanted everyone to see this article on Robert Hubbs.....good kid who can flat out play. Look forward to seeing him next year !

http://www.stategazette.com/story/194...

Thanks. Great article.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to andforhisnexttune:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

That isn't true. There is also a CBS bracketologist who has the Vols in the tournament. Also, ESPN's Lunardi is not just some guy with opinions. He has an excellent record of predicting selections and seeds. And it is just stupidly malignant sowing of paranoia on your part to suggest that he would risk that reputation by picking somebody he knows has no chance just to hack off the fans of that team later when they don't get in.

Of course, we all know that if the Vols lose one of their next three games, the odds of getting into the NCAAs become vanishingly small. You simply don't WANT the Vols to get in, so you come on here every day just to dash cold water in the fans' faces. Well, thanks for nothing, but we will continue to hope until hope is gone, though we know the odds may still be against us.

8inarow writes:

in response to licknpromise777#651578:

Losing to GA hurt more than some of these writers are letting on..To most who don't follow SEC ball it is really a bad loss but in reality GA has some excellent young talent to go along with Pope, who gets my vote for SEC player of the year..If you catch the Dogs on a good shooting night they will most certainly beat you and if they don't regress in the tourney they could be the spoiler..The Mizzo game is the must win!! They are a lock for the tourney and have tons of talent to go with a solid coach..Beat them and Auburn then we might be back in the chase...Anything less than it's back to the NIT..Don't much like our chances in the SEC tourney because it's a good chance we face Ole Miss or Bama in 2nd round and our record against them is 1 and 3

Mizzou is a lock. Home court, 50% more free-throws. Wins every time it's tried.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to licknpromise777#651578:

Losing to GA hurt more than some of these writers are letting on..To most who don't follow SEC ball it is really a bad loss but in reality GA has some excellent young talent to go along with Pope, who gets my vote for SEC player of the year..If you catch the Dogs on a good shooting night they will most certainly beat you and if they don't regress in the tourney they could be the spoiler..The Mizzo game is the must win!! They are a lock for the tourney and have tons of talent to go with a solid coach..Beat them and Auburn then we might be back in the chase...Anything less than it's back to the NIT..Don't much like our chances in the SEC tourney because it's a good chance we face Ole Miss or Bama in 2nd round and our record against them is 1 and 3

Can't disagree with much of this, but the Vols' record against Bama and OM is one reason why I think the Vols have a chance against them in the SEC tournament. It is really hard to beat a team two or three times in a season. Hard to imagine Henderson, for example, really going off on the Vols a third time. He has been held in check several times this year, so the Vols should have plenty of film on how to defend him. As for Bama, we got them before McRae really started to go off. They are limited offensively, so if the Vols can just avoid giving the ball away, they should be able to score enough to win. But for us fans as well as for the team, all that can wait until the situation arises. The team in particular can't afford to look beyond each possession remaining in the season, or the rest of that stuff won't mean much.

underthehill writes:

in response to movinonup:

Wanted everyone to see this article on Robert Hubbs.....good kid who can flat out play. Look forward to seeing him next year !

http://www.stategazette.com/story/194...

Thanks..

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to movinonup:

Wanted everyone to see this article on Robert Hubbs.....good kid who can flat out play. Look forward to seeing him next year !

http://www.stategazette.com/story/194...

O wonder if we can get the kid he gave the trophy.

jt45 writes:

Time for Golden to get back in the groove, we need him to really step up and lead this team down the stretch. Its not about the points, this team is totally different when he plays well. I hope the Vols take no quarter tonight and run those tigers till their out of gas.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to mocsandvolsfan:

O wonder if we can get the kid he gave the trophy.

I like it! A kid who plays solid PG for a state championship contender just might be able to play a litttle. Maybe he's only 5'6" and 120, though. Maybe the Vols ought to take a look at him anyway. I remember a PG about 30 years ago named Mugsey Bogues; only about 5'2"(!) but tough as a stump and probably good enough to help the Vols since he played about 10 years in the NBA!

johnlg00 writes:

in response to jt45:

Time for Golden to get back in the groove, we need him to really step up and lead this team down the stretch. Its not about the points, this team is totally different when he plays well. I hope the Vols take no quarter tonight and run those tigers till their out of gas.

I agree. This team goes as Golden goes. You might have mixed your metaphors, though. The expression is "GIVE no quarter", which means give them no mercy, or perhaps "TAKE no prisoners", which means about the same thing. Just messing with you. Sometimes I just can't stop the "word nerd" in me from coming out(;-P)!

jt45 writes:

in response to johnlg00:

I agree. This team goes as Golden goes. You might have mixed your metaphors, though. The expression is "GIVE no quarter", which means give them no mercy, or perhaps "TAKE no prisoners", which means about the same thing. Just messing with you. Sometimes I just can't stop the "word nerd" in me from coming out(;-P)!

LOL! Your right, meant Give to quarter, its been one of those days where Ibuprofen is your best friend.

Anyway I hope they approach each and every game from here on out like they are playing a florida or kentucky. Ive noticed that they have a tendency to play to the level of the competition at times and this sometimes seems to effect their intensity level. They are almost 2 different teams. Its quite a difference .

johnlg00 writes:

in response to jt45:

LOL! Your right, meant Give to quarter, its been one of those days where Ibuprofen is your best friend.

Anyway I hope they approach each and every game from here on out like they are playing a florida or kentucky. Ive noticed that they have a tendency to play to the level of the competition at times and this sometimes seems to effect their intensity level. They are almost 2 different teams. Its quite a difference .

Glad you didn't take offense as none was intended. Hope you get to feeling better. Your basic point is absolutely correct. While I don't necessarily agree with some posters who say that if the Vols can't beat Auburn, it means they can't beat ANYBODY, it is undeniable that this is NO time to let up. Winning when you OUGHT to has to become a habit or the NECESSITY for winning "have-to" games becomes a regular thing.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to johnlg00:

I like it! A kid who plays solid PG for a state championship contender just might be able to play a litttle. Maybe he's only 5'6" and 120, though. Maybe the Vols ought to take a look at him anyway. I remember a PG about 30 years ago named Mugsey Bogues; only about 5'2"(!) but tough as a stump and probably good enough to help the Vols since he played about 10 years in the NBA!

Wasn't it Bogues that played for Florida State against UCLA in the finals years back? Lost by five points if I remember correctly. ??

Tennfan4075 writes:

If the Vols want to dance they need to win out. Anything short of a tournament win will leave them hoping for NIT, or next year.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to mocsandvolsfan:

Wasn't it Bogues that played for Florida State against UCLA in the finals years back? Lost by five points if I remember correctly. ??

I think Mugsey played for Maryland, though it may have been Wake Forest; it's been awhile and I didn't live in ACC country when he played there. I do know he had a very distinguished college career and had a number of surprisingly productive years in the NBA. My "tough as a stump" description came from one of his NBA opponents. An interviewer asked this guy why Mugsey was able to survive against opponents so much taller. His answer, in part, was that Mugsey was so low to the ground that it was hard to get around him, his hands were always right at the level of your dribble, and when you tried to run over him it was like running into a tree stump. He was a decent outside shooter and perfected the running floater in the lane before almost anybody else did. Where there's a will, there's a way!

johnlg00 writes:

in response to johnlg00:

I think Mugsey played for Maryland, though it may have been Wake Forest; it's been awhile and I didn't live in ACC country when he played there. I do know he had a very distinguished college career and had a number of surprisingly productive years in the NBA. My "tough as a stump" description came from one of his NBA opponents. An interviewer asked this guy why Mugsey was able to survive against opponents so much taller. His answer, in part, was that Mugsey was so low to the ground that it was hard to get around him, his hands were always right at the level of your dribble, and when you tried to run over him it was like running into a tree stump. He was a decent outside shooter and perfected the running floater in the lane before almost anybody else did. Where there's a will, there's a way!

PS, Moc: You might have been thinking about Charlie Ward. He was a pretty darned good QB on the FSU football team, also starred in basketball, and played a good number of years in the NBA.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to Tennfan4075:

If the Vols want to dance they need to win out. Anything short of a tournament win will leave them hoping for NIT, or next year.

Winning at home against Mizzou on Saturday and two wins in the SEC tourney almost certainly puts them in the NCAAs. They are a solid lock for the NIT if they don't win another game. Don't be such a pessimist!

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