For the second year in a row, it’s March sadness for Tennessee men’s basketball.
The NCAA tournament Selection Show concluded Sunday without the Vols splashing across the screen. They now trudge forward to a second straight National Invitational Tournament. Tennessee (20-12), a No. 2 seed, will face seventh-seeded Mercer (23-11) on Wednesday at Thompson-Boling Arena (TV: ESPNU, 8 p.m.).
Instead of the Vols, St. Mary’s, Boise State, La Salle and Middle Tennessee State landed as the last four teams in the NCAA bracket. Ole Miss, a bubble team as of Sunday morning, earned an automatic bid by means of a 66-63 win over Florida in the SEC championship game.
The Rebels gave the SEC a third bid to the NCAA tournament, joining Florida and Missouri. It’s the league’s fewest representatives since 2009 and only the second time since 1990 that less than four conference teams are dancing.
“There are too many good coaches and a caliber of talent in this league that, to get three teams, that’s an embarrassment,” said UT coach Cuonzo Martin, who is going to his third straight NIT, having brought Missouri State in 2011.
Now UT is preparing for its second straight NIT for the first time since 2003 and 2004. UT snapped a school-record streak of six straight NCAA tournament appearances last year.
“I don’t think it came down to MTSU and Tennessee because at the end of the day, you have to take care of your own business,” Martin said. “I thought we were in position with scheduling. Some games you came up short in. At the end of the day it’s about Tennessee doing what we need to do instead of consuming ourselves with who got in.”
This will be Tennessee’s 13th appearance in the NIT. The Vols (20-12) hold a 13-12 all-time record.
Mercer, a guard-oriented team coming off an Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season title, comes to Thompson-Boling as winners in 11 of its last 13 games. The Bears saw their NCAA tournament hopes dashed in a conference championship game loss to Florida Gulf Coast.
Wednesday’s winner will travel to face the survivor of third-seeded BYU (21-11) and sixth-seeded Washington (18-15). As a No. 2 seed, UT would have hosted a potential second-round NIT game, but Thompson-Boling will be unavailable due to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Upon learning of missing the NCAA tournament, memories of Georgetown, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama come to mind.
On Nov. 30, UT held Georgetown to 37 points, its fewest in a game since 1984, and lost by one. The Vols went 3-for-11 from the free-throw line that day. Georgetown ended up as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
On Jan. 24, UT led most of the way at Ole Miss, but then watched as Marshall Henderson poured in 24 second-half points to squeeze out a 62-56 win. The Vols committed 21 turnovers and missed four critical free throws in the final minutes.
Georgia upended UT twice, on Feb. 6 in Knoxville and March 2 in Athens. Both were winnable. Both were lost.
Most recently, a loss to Alabama in Friday’s SEC quarterfinals, though, was the ultimate pinprick to the Vols’ bubble.
Any of the above could have shifted Tennessee’s stars.
In a post-Selection Show interview with CBS, Mike Bobinski, the chair of the NCAA tournament selection committee, specifically pointed to the season sweep by Ole Miss as a blockade. He also said UT’s late-season push didn’t include wins over “a lot of very powerful teams” and added that the Vols “struggled to win on the road over the course of the year.”
The latter comments stand as a point of contention for Tennessee. Included in the team’s nine wins in its final 11 games were victories over Florida, Missouri and Kentucky. The Vols finished the year 4-7 on the road and 3-2 in neutral court games.
All told, UT went 3-5 against the NCAA tournament’s 68-team field.
“They said we lost to Ole Miss twice, well Ole Miss is an NCAA tournament team,” Martin quipped.
The 32-team NIT will have to suffice.
Playing as a No. 1 seed in last season’s NIT, the Vols beat Savannah State before falling to Middle Tennessee State.
That same MTSU team snuck into Sunday’s bracket. The Blue Raiders, who finished the season 28-5, including a 19-1 record in the Sun Belt Conference, landed as a No. 11 seed and will face St. Mary’s in a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.