So Tennessee’s men were rejected Sunday, told their body of work from a Nov. 9 tipoff through Friday’s SEC tournament exit wasn’t good enough.
For coach Cuonzo Martin, it hurts to see the disappointment in his players’ faces. They invested so much and came so close.
He hates it for the fans, too. They were a big help in big games at Thompson-Boling Arena this winter. Given football’s malaise, the fans wanted this NCAA tournament bid in the worst way.
As for himself, Martin is a professional, and a well paid one. He’ll soldier on. Without skipping a beat Sunday night, he plunged into getting his team over the letdown hump and ready to face Mercer in the NIT on Wednesday night.
But the reality is, this one hurt.
A head basketball coach in a power conference is measured on several factors.
Putting butts in the seats is critical. Apathy is a program killer.
Competing for conference championships is another. Everybody likes trophies.
Avoiding visits from the NCAA compliance folks is strongly suggested. Ask Bruce Pearl.
Then there’s the NCAA tournament. You’re either in it or you’re nowhere.
That’s the harsh reality of the sport. Out of 347 Division I teams, 68 make the Big Dance. You’d better be one of them.
By all accounts, Tennessee was a near-miss in Martin’s second season. The Vols were also close-but-no-cigar in his first season.
The upshot is that he will go into his third season with increased pressure to deliver a celebration on Selection Sunday.
Had the Vols’ name been called Sunday, it would have been a load off Martin’s professional back. Even an opening-round loss is preferable to not being invited — or even, in general, to NIT success.
South Carolina won back-to-back NIT titles in 2005-06. Any given March, you’re more likely to hear how the Gamecocks haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1973.
It’s important to note that, Big Dance or no, UT basketball is in better shape than the majority of its SEC brethren.
By 2011, Pearl’s run of six straight tournaments was the envy of the conference, at least south of Lexington and north of Gainesville.
LSU and Mississippi State have missed four straight years. Proud Arkansas hasn’t been since 2008. South Carolina last went in 2004, Auburn in 2003. Ole Miss’ bid into this year’s tournament broke a 10-year drought.
Martin’s two-year SEC regular-season record of 21-13 is commendable, especially under the circumstances of his first two rosters. Jeronne Maymon’s presence surely would have pushed the Vols into this bracket.
There were also plenty of butts in the seats this season. And mouths eating popcorn. Apathy is not an issue.
But sooner or later, you have to be part of the big event. Buzz Peterson never was in his four years (2002-05) between Jerry Green and Pearl. The apathy caught up with him.
As UT fans look to 2013-14, they should like what they see. Maymon will be back. Recruit Robert Hubbs is eagerly anticipated.
When the first 2014 mock bracket appears — if it hasn’t already — Tennessee should be in it.
But when the real 2014 bracket is unveiled a year from now, the Vols better be in that one, too.
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.