For a team like Tennessee, bummed and bitter, the National Invitational Tournament is a consolation designation.
For a team like Mercer, bright and buoyant, the NIT is a consolation prize.
“It’s just, I don’t know, really disappointing,” UT junior guard Jordan McRae said.
Meanwhile, at Mercer, coach Bob Hoffman cheerfully told the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph that his Bears were “pumped when our name came up,” during Sunday night’s NIT Selection Show.
Two teams. Two very different dispositions. One first-round NIT game tonight at Thompson-Boling Arena (TV: ESPNU, 8 p.m.).
Feeling burnt by the scorn of the NCAA tournament selection committee, McRae encapsulated the Vols’ situation by saying, simply, “There’s no sense in making matters worse by going Wednesday and losing this first game.”
Mercer comes to Knoxville as regular-season champions from the Atlantic Sun Conference. After going 14-4 in league play, a home loss to Florida Gulf Coast in the conference title game snagged hopes of an NCAA tournament berth.
A 23-11 season included two wins over power conference teams Florida State and Alabama. They were the fourth and fifth BCS wins of Hoffman’s five-year tenure. All five of those games came on the road.
Now the Bears want to slay Tennessee (20-12).
The Vols have had a few days since Selection Sunday to readjust, dumping the disappointment of being snubbed.
Senior Kenny Hall said, “I don’t think we have anything to prove, maybe to ourselves, but whatever we do, it’s not going to get us into the NCAA tournament.” He later added, “We still have a chance to win something.”
Mercer had a chance to win something last year. Invited to the postseason CollegeInsider.com Tournament, the Bears made the most of it. They beat Tennessee State, Georgia State, Old Dominion, Fairfield and Utah State to become the first Atlantic Sun men’s basketball team to win a postseason title.
UT, meanwhile, was bounced in the NIT second round by Middle Tennessee State.
Now, MTSU is one of 10 teams from the 2012 NIT appearing in the 2013 NCAA tournament.
Tonight’s survivor between Tennessee and Mercer will travel to face either third-seeded BYU (21-11) or sixth-seeded Washington (18-15).
“We’re going into this thing to win,” McRae said. “I mean, everybody is still upset about it, you can see it on guys’ faces coming into the locker room. But there’s no need to tuck our heads down now. It is what it is. We have to be ready to play on Wednesday.”
Mercer is led by guards Langston Hall and Travis Smith, a pair of second-team all-conference selections. The two combine to average 24.5 points per game.
The Bears score 1.09 points per possession, 33rd best in the country, and rank 12th nationally in free-throw shooting (75.7 percent) and 35th with 249 made 3-pointers.
Only 43.2 percent of Mercer’s 68.8 points per game come on two-point field goals.
“They score the ball and have a lot of set plays they execute very well,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Bob has done a great job coaching those guys. They have some big wins this year.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers UT men’s basketball. Following at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn