Brushing aside a hangover of disappointment, Cuonzo Martin eyed the future. “What are we not doing that those leagues are doing?” the Tennessee coach asked Monday morning. “That’s the question we have to answer.”
Hunting to understand Tennessee’s exclusion from the NCAA tournament, Martin spoke with a guarded tone, but had plenty to say. The Vols (20-12) are heading to a second straight National Invitational Tournament and he’d like to know why.
“I wish I knew,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. I would say a lack of respect more than anything. When you have a second-place team at this level (Kentucky and Alabama finished second in the SEC and will join UT in the NIT), it’s almost like a mid-major mentality in this league. When your second-place team doesn’t get in the NCAA tournament — this is a BCS league, it’s one of the best league’s in the country — that just shouldn’t happen.”
Of the other power conferences, the Big East earned the most bids with eight, followed by the Big Ten (seven), Big 12 (five), Pac-12 (five) and Atlantic Coast Conference (four).
The Mountain West and Atlantic 10, perceived mid-major conferences, earned five bids apiece.
Dissecting the SEC, a league that added two teams and saw its tournament bids drop from five to three, Martin voiced concern over non-conference scheduling. Five of the league’s 14 teams finished a with non-conference strength of schedule rated worse than 200 — LSU (233), Ole Miss (277), Auburn (293), Mississippi State (300) and South Carolina (321).
The Big Ten had just three programs finish 200 or higher.
A team’s non-conference strength of schedule directly impacts its RPI, which indirectly impacts the RPI of every opponent.
Martin gave the gaudy numbers posted by LSU, Mississippi State and South Carolina a free pass, noting that each program is led by a first-year coach looking to rebuild.
He then unsheathed this response to a question on SEC scheduling, “At the rate we’re going, if we don’t get it corrected, in some way shape or form, you’re looking at three or four different new guys (coaches) at somebody’s school every year.
“Something has to give,” he continued. “It’s about a league at the end of the day.”
This year’s NCAA tournament is just the second since 1990 to include less than four SEC teams.
“There is no way in the world that this league, with this caliber of talent … you’re only getting three teams in the NCAA tournament?” Martin said. “Shouldn’t happen.”
“When you look at Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky,” he added, “those are NCAA tournament teams; they’re just not playing in the NCAA tournament.”
But Middle Tennessee State (RPI 28, SOS 129), La Salle (46, 77), St. Mary’s (29, 96) and Boise State (41, 53) are playing.
Tennessee (59, 58), meanwhile, is a No. 2 seed in the NIT and host seventh-seeded Mercer (23-11) on Wednesday (TV: ESPNU, 8 p.m.) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols are appearing in their second straight NIT.
“I’m not angry,” he said. “I’m upset for our guys.”
Alabama and Kentucky, which both finished tied for second in the conference with Ole Miss, SEC tournament champions and a 12 seed in the NCAA tournament field, join the Vols in the NIT bracket.
No team finishing in second in the regular season from a BCS league aside from the SEC was seeded lower than eighth in the NCAA tournament.
Prior to conference play, the SEC went 3-16 against ranked opponents. It finished 15-33 against other major conferences.
“But at the end of the day, you started out of the gates down, but you finished strong,” Martin said. “So you reward teams for how they finish and their body of work. I used to hear ‘body of work’ and ‘the last 10 games.’ I don’t hear it as much anymore.
“There should be a level of consistency. What is the criteria? One year it’s the RPI. One year it’s the strength of schedule. I just think what it comes down to is, what’s beneficial at that time? You can make a case for a team that you want in the tournament and for a team I don’t want in the tournament, I can make a different case. That happens.”
Martin also addressed a much-discussed post-selection show interview featuring Mike Bobinski, the chair of the NCAA tournament selection committee. The Xavier athletic director said UT’s 9-2 finish to the season didn’t include wins over “a lot of very powerful teams” and that the Vols “struggled to win on the road over the course of the year,”
“I didn’t think it was accurate, if that was the case,” Martin said. “I thought he was talking fast, but I didn’t think it was accurate.”
Regarding changes to SEC scheduling, Martin said it will need to be addressed during May’s league meetings in Destin, Fla.
“I don’t know if the perception will change,” he said. “I think there are some things we have to look at as a league.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn