NASHVILLE — Cuonzo Martin declared his Tennessee team NCAA tournament fit after it knocked off Missouri in the last game of the regular season a week ago.
And the coach might have been right. But perhaps he should have kept the assessment to himself.
Desperation had served the Vols so well.
They were 11-10 at one point. From there, they couldn’t see the NCAA tournament bubble. From there, even the NIT was iffy.
They won nine of their next 10 games. They embarrassed Kentucky. They beat Florida. They won 20 games.
No one else in the SEC had a comparable finishing kick.
Maybe that finishing kick coupled with enough big wins and a commendable non-conference schedule will sway the NCAA tournament selection committee Sunday.
But you didn’t see that kick in a 58-48 loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament quarterfinals Friday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena. Nor did you see a team that looked as though it belonged in the NCAA tournament.
You saw the 11-10 Vols.
You also saw a more desperate Alabama team playing for its postseason life.
If you had listened to Alabama coach Anthony Grant, an NCAA carrot still dangling in the distance was no factor. It was all about one game at a time, he said. It was all about winning the SEC tournament.
Don’t believe him.
All you read and hear from the media and fans is the “NCAA tournament: in or out?”
Do you really think players ignore that? It’s only their college dream.
I found an honest man in the Alabama locker room.
“We all know we want to get that bid,” said Alabama’s Nick Jacobs, who came off the bench to get 12 rebounds.
UT’s horrific 32.1 percent shooting from the field — against a disciplined, determined Alabama zone defense — flashed neon bright if you were looking for a decisive stat.
But don’t ignore the rebounding.
UT outrebounded the Tide in splitting two regular-season games, each of which came down to a final shot. This time, thanks in part to Jacobs’ inspired play, its advantage shrunk to a mere two rebounds.
Jacobs had five more rebounds this time than he did in the first two games combined. He admittedly was no match for UT’s Jarnell Stokes, who had just one more rebound than Jacobs on Friday.
“I was motivated, knowing he had the best of me,” Jacobs said. “My whole thing was to learn from that.”
And what did he learn?
“To play hard,” Jacobs said.
His teammates apparently reached the same conclusion.
Games of this ilk are not just about effort, though. They’re about having a sense of urgency, about appreciating the value of every possession.
Tennessee often reflected those virtues during its 9-1 streak. It also demonstrated a resourcefulness that it lacked against the Tide.
“If we make some shots against that zone, it’s a totally different game,” said Tennessee guard Skylar McBee, who made only one of six field-goal attempts.
It also might have been a totally different game if the Vols had sought different avenues when their wayward outside shots were leading them astray.
They made 39.4 percent of their shots on the road against Texas A&M last month but found a way to win, even though it took them four overtimes.
But they were more desperate then.