NASHVILLE — March madness? More like March marketing.
If the medium is in fact the message, the SEC men’s basketball tournament will be a five-day festival promoting the league’s NCAA tournament worthiness.
Let the spinning begin.
“I think this league takes a level of criticism that it doesn’t deserve,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said Wednesday, glowering like a lawyer. “When you talk about a league of this caliber — this caliber of coaching and talent — and you’re talking maybe three or four teams in?”
“Then you look and there are nine teams in the top 100 of RPI,” he contended. “You’re talking about three or four teams (earning NCAA tournament bids)? That’s crazy.”
But it might be reality. Martin and his fifth-seeded Vols (19-11) open SEC tournament play today (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.) against Mississippi State in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
The 13th-seeded Bulldogs (10-21), who UT beat 72-57 on Jan. 19 in Knoxville, advanced with a 70-59 victory over 12th-seeded South Carolina (14-18) on Wednesday night in the tournament’s opening round.
A win today would bring the Vols’ season total to 20, adding some meat to their NCAA tournament resume.
Martin thinks Tennessee is tournament-worthy either way. He said so after a season-finale win over Missouri. He reiterated it Wednesday.
Asked during a press conference at Bridgestone Arena if deeming his Vols as an NCAA tournament team over the weekend was premature, Martin ricocheted back with, “I wasn’t premature. I said what I meant.”
So that’s that.
“When you look at the numbers, you can take 20 of those bubble teams, put Tennessee up against those teams and you’ll see the numbers,” Martin said later.
As requested, a study of 20 bubble teams shows Tennessee in a sound, but not solid, position. Using numbers offered up by CBSSports.com, the Vols’ RPI (55) ranked 10th among the group. Their strength of schedule (41) was third-best behind only Villanova (24), a near lock to dance, and Baylor (26), a team with some work left to be done.
The Vols do as well. Martin kept lobbying.
“When you play at Georgetown, when you play at Virginia, when you’ve got Wichita State and Xavier at home, you got Oklahoma State and UMass — when you’re playing these teams, we did our part,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to. Last year you could make the case, well Tennessee’s preseason was bad. Well, the preseason wasn’t bad this time. Then you finish 11-7 in the league after going 8-4 in the preseason. Not bad. Then you’ve got two games where (point guard Trae Golden) didn’t play — Arkansas and Georgia (both losses).”
The Vols watched Selection Sunday last season with an 18-14 record, an RPI of 80 and a strength of schedule ranked 40th. They landed in the NIT.
“The difference between this year and last year, when you say Tennessee is a bubble team — the NCAA (selection committee) says you have to go out and play this team and they want to see this and see that,” Martin said, steaming along. “Well Tennessee did everything they want to see.”
A win today by UT would set up a quarterfinal meeting with fourth-seeded Alabama (20-11). The Crimson Tide are in a similar spot, shouldering among the masses in a broad bubble.
Business must first be tended to today, however. The Vols topped Mississippi State in their lone meeting behind four double-digit scorers led by 18 points from sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.