Mike Strange: NIT spells another disappointing end for Vols

Tennessee got Robert Morrissed on Wednesday night, without bothering with a trip to Robert Morris.

As a result, the Vols won’t have to bother with a trip to Provo, either.

Substitute Mercer for Robert Morris. Substitute the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling Arena for a bandbox in Pittsburgh.

The National Invitation Tournament has turned out to be a humbling event for a couple of dejected NCAA tournament wanna-bes from the SEC.

Tennessee fans enjoyed seeing Kentucky get dumped from the NIT Tuesday night at the aforementioned bandbox.

But what went around came around Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling.

Mercer’s Bears pulled the postseason rug out from under the Vols, 75-67. There will be no second-round game at Brigham Young to negotiate, not for UT at least.

This was yet another spotty chapter in Tennessee’s postseason history.

Last year, at least, it was a mid-major — Middle Tennessee State — that ended UT’s NIT adventure in the second round.

Mercer aspires to be a mid-major.

There was, however, nothing short of high major status about the Bears’ performance.

As regular-season champion of the Atlantic Sun Conference, Mercer had its own bout of disappointment to digest, being denied an NCAA bid after being upset in the conference tournament by Florida Gulf Coast.

The Bears handled their letdown better than Tennessee.

“The NIT is awesome,’’ said junior Daniel Coursey, who was an awesome 7-of-7 from the field against UT. “It’s huge for the school, for the program.’’

From the opening tip, it was apparent to a crowd of 4,468 and an ESPNU television audience that Mercer was more engaged than was UT.

“They played the game like it was the end of their lives,’’ said UT sophomore Jarnell Stokes.

The Vols played the game like they were resigned to the end of their season.

Tennessee, feeling disrespected by the NCAA tourney selection process, managed sporadic leads through the first half, the last at 27-24. Mercer closed the half with a 10-1 spurt and never looked back.

The Vols opened the second half with a pair of listless turnovers (the second a shot-clock violation) and were fighting an uphill battle the rest of the way.

The Bears, who had won at Florida State and at Alabama earlier in the year, had ample resolve — and skill — to win here.

“This year we won nine road games and last year we won 12 road games,’’ said coach Bob Hoffman.

“It’s not like this was just some mistake or something crazy that happened tonight.’’

In fact, it didn’t seem crazy at all.

The Bears, at times, ran a half-court offensive clinic. Their shooting percentage never dipped below the final 50 percent.

“I don’t care how many points you score,’’ UT coach Cuonzo Martin said, “you’ve got to have a mindset to defend.’’

That’s some other coaches’ problem now. The Big Dance commences in earnest today around the nation. Motivation won’t be an issue. It’s where every team wants to be.

At UT, meanwhile, spring break commences.

Tennessee had its moments this season, which shouldn’t be forgotten in the wake of a disappointing ending.

But it is an ending, sooner than expected.

If the Vols didn’t really want to be in the NIT in the first place, now they’re not.

Problem solved.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44

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Comments » 20

emailnodata (Inactive) writes:

@Mike, I appreciate you giving Mercer the credit they deserved.

Their emotion, some talent, and intelligence were enough to overcome UT.

UT??? How stupid can you be to waste Jarnell's obvious dominance in the paint.

UT has talent..but they are bluntly basketball-stupid.

td writes:

Jordan McRae has flopped since Caldwell-Pope received SEC player of the year. Fair or not, McRae's performance these last couple of games has proven Jordan ain't. Of course, there's plenty of blame to go round; and now, they can all go on Spring Break. Like it or not, NIT first round loss is the Legacy of 2012-13 VolB-Ball. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

emailnodata (Inactive) writes:

in response to td:

Jordan McRae has flopped since Caldwell-Pope received SEC player of the year. Fair or not, McRae's performance these last couple of games has proven Jordan ain't. Of course, there's plenty of blame to go round; and now, they can all go on Spring Break. Like it or not, NIT first round loss is the Legacy of 2012-13 VolB-Ball. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

@TD
McRae and the rest became completely tentative...making too many passes, lack of offensive aggression, a ton of hesitation.

I noticed it against Bama and Mercer both.

vut5686#1405392 writes:

"...you have got to have the mindset to defend" Hasn't Coach had two years to develope that mindset? Likely to do so in another year?

Lots of comments about the players not thinking this game important, no interest, letdown from not making NCAA, etc. It seemed they had no clue how to stop basic basketball...and incapable of adjustment during the game. Again, they have had all season to develope a clue or two. These guys are getting paid to perform. Yes, paid. Room, boared, tuition and the perks that go with being part of a team and surrounding that is Tennessee. Assembly line workers, dishwashers, teachers, doctors do not/cannot take a shift off. It should be beyond imagination that these players think that way. It is the coaches responsibility to assure they play or sit....or take their attitude and poor performance elsewhere. Better that an outgunned team loses, if they do their best than a team with talent win...if they do not consistently play as if they care.

tan007 writes:

I am ready to forget it & move on to high hopes for next year. I know the team was disappointed & not excited about the NIT...neither was I. If I were them, spring break would have been much more appealing.

tulelakevol writes:

On the one hand, a 20 win season at UT is great. On the other hand, Bruce Pearl changed that, when he took us to greater things that had never been done in UT basketball before. So that leaves all the fans wanting just a bit more, myself included.

johnlg00 writes:

Pretty fair comments so far here today. After this week, after everybody has had a chance to decompress from the season and the opportunity to watch the teams that mostly DID get it done this season, the Vol basketball program has to undertake a true top-down review of itself. They might even consider hiring an outside consultant of some sort who can look at everything with fresh eyes. (I'm available(;-P)!) Seriously, there are probably some genuine experts out there with both basketball experience and perhaps with some kind of background in strategic planning who could suggest workable ways to fix some of the program's problems.

I haven't gotten to the game article yet, but I have no doubt that there are plenty of deep thinkers on there who think the only--or at least the simplest--solution is to fire Martin and at least come to an understanding with Pearl to be the next coach. As a practical matter, I don't think Pearl can actually be hired anywhere until his show-cause order expires in August, but on a number of other levels, I don't endorse this "solution" at all.

Martin deserved to get this chance when he was hired. He has done just enough to deserve full support through the end of next season. But as much as I admire Martin as a man, he HAS to do better as a coach if he expects to stay here beyond that. As an old fan is alleged to have said, "I love you, Coach, win or lose. But if you lose too much, I'll miss you, too!" Not all of the team's problems are directly related to coaching as such, but a visible effort by the head man to remedy some of his own shortcomings might be a clue to the players that they ought to do the same.

This should not be done in an atmosphere of casting blame--that is what chat board posters are for--but in a true spirit of cooperation among all elements to help each other improve in pursuit of common goals. I will look forward to any evidence that this is taking place. I may offer a few "modest proposals" of my own from time to time or upon request(;-P)!

Now I've got to prepare for a four-day orgy of NCAA viewing. My wife will be out of town this weekend, so I can drink, feast, and sleep on my own schedule to my heart's content. Hope everybody else who is so inclined can do the same.

In the meantime, GO LADY VOLS!!! Show the world you are on your way back!!! Big props to Mercedes Russell, incoming Lady Vol, for being named Gatorade HS Player of the Year! Hope she follows in the footsteps of a former Lady Vol winner of that award, Candace Parker. It's always darkest before the dawn, Vol fans. Let's just hope this is as dark as it ever gets!

SevierVol writes:

UT needs a strong, vocal on the floor leader because it's obvious that the coaching staff can't motivate them on a night-in and night-out basis. It seems as though this team has no pride or much of a will to win. I remember seeing Ernie Grunfeld, as a freshman, grab a teammate by the jersey and force him to listen to what he had to say. This team needs that type of leadership and they having nothing close to that.

gpoy22 writes:

The fans aren't booing. They're yelling Bruuuce.

emailnodata (Inactive) writes:

@johnlg
Here's the deal, to me, with CCM.

He inherited a team from Bruce that knew how to defend inbounds plays with utter tenacity, and how to create points on its own inbounds plays (of screw them up, of course).

He walked in, and just tossed all that, rather than building on something that had been proven to get 3-4 baskets per game.

I see stuff such as that, and I being questioning his basketball IQ. When I see a team rejecting his on-court coaching, then I have to question their respect for him.

The ultimate difference between he and Bruce as coaches is that Bruce game plans far, far better. Neither man adjusts worth a s##t, but Bruce has the superior basketball mind.

orangecountyvols writes:

Vols,

Yes, a lot of it is coaching, or lack therof.
But.............the overwhelming problem with basketball at Tennessee is who the players are.

The talk about players not caring or being fired up to play every game etc. To repeat, it's who the players are. They have to be the type of guys you can count on, not just with obvious talent which is paramount, but the pedigree of that which is evident on winning teams. For example, Craft at Ohio State. Hulls and Zeller at Indiana. Joe Harris at Virginia. A couple of the Michigan State or Michigan guys........whose names I can't recall. The point guard, Larkin at Miami. Heck, the winning teams have these players......no one has to wind them up like a clock. They have pride along with the talent.
You see these guys scrapping to the end even when the game is in doubt. Even a player we don't particularly like.........the kid at Ole Miss....
he is wound up, he wants to excell.

Yes, you have to have great coaching but without the players you can really count on, with both talent and heart..........we'll always be having
this conversation.

1vavolfan writes:

Don't hire a football coach with a losing record, or a basketball coach who hasn't been to the NCAA tournament.

jawbreaker writes:

If all Coach Martin and his players wanted to do was mope around about not making the NCAA tournament, then they shouldn't have accepted the NIT bid in the first place. And, maybe Martin should have kept his NCAA thoughts to himself after the mediocre, second-half showing against Mississippi State. Maybe the Vols thought they had the NCAA in the bag, which explains their sleep-walking performance in the loss to Bama. I would guess the cost of hosting the NIT game was a monetary loser (in an athletic department already 20 million in the hole), and the "national" exposure in the loss to Mercer could not have been beneficial to the basketball program overall. So, again I say, turn down the NIT bid and go on Spring Break, which is all the team wanted to do anyway. Finally, I think Cuonzo had better make the NCAA next year, or he may find himself up a creek without a proverbial paddle. Don't get me wrong, I hope that is NOT the case.

tenecvol4 writes:

When I see other teams playing - take Louisville for example- I see quick fast guard play and quick tall smart forwards all of whom play aggressive both ends- I see us as slow - clunky - large body-like a '65' Lincoln- Purdue-ish - Big Ten ish play. It just doesnt cut it in today's game and unfortunatly thats what Zoe knows and recruits- it will be nice to have Maiman back but its more or the same

BuckshotMcGee writes:

The team that is excited to be there always wins in the NIT. The team that doesn't want to be there, well, they lose. Hats off to Mercer. They played well. We did not.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to emailnodata:

@johnlg
Here's the deal, to me, with CCM.

He inherited a team from Bruce that knew how to defend inbounds plays with utter tenacity, and how to create points on its own inbounds plays (of screw them up, of course).

He walked in, and just tossed all that, rather than building on something that had been proven to get 3-4 baskets per game.

I see stuff such as that, and I being questioning his basketball IQ. When I see a team rejecting his on-court coaching, then I have to question their respect for him.

The ultimate difference between he and Bruce as coaches is that Bruce game plans far, far better. Neither man adjusts worth a s##t, but Bruce has the superior basketball mind.

Well, Bruce's two last teams didn't do nearly as good a job of defending the out-of-bounds plays as his first couple did. I used to laugh at how out-of-date the TV analysts' info was when they continued to mention that ability when they hadn't in fact done that good a job of it for awhile. I agree that it would be a good sign if the Vols could develop that ability again. In fact, I see this whole offseason as a chance for this staff to show a bit of flexibility and imagination, not to mention consistent on-court discipline, that have not been all that evident these last two seasons.

As just one small example, for a supposedly defensive-minded team, the Vols have remarkably poor individual defensive stances. Take for example the "defensive slide". The old-fashioned way to teach it was to move side to side by bringing the back foot over to the front foot and then extend the front foot. The idea is to avoid crossing the feet when moving laterally. However, in reality this almost inevitably causes the player to raise up and there is a split-second when his feet are together and that is when he is most vulnerable to an opponent's drive. The trick is to stay in a low position with feet a bit more than shoulder-width apart, knees bent, back straight, and arms up and moving. Then you just sort of hop each foot independently, moving them only about six to eight inches at a time in a sort of skittering motion. You never put yourself in that upright position and are always ready to move in any direction.

The hands themselves are another issue. I refer again to Jimmy Dykes' idea of "hot hands". When I noticed that the Vols were regularly having defensive problems, I paid close attention to each player's stance. Usually I saw guys bent over at the waist with their hands down and virtually motionless unless they were right on a ball-handler, in which case they were reaching for the ball on the dribble. Well, it is good to try to bother the dribble and prevent the ball-handler from crossing over right in front of you, but the other hand needs to be up and waving to obstruct the view and bother the pass, all WITHOUT bending over and lunging at the ball, which again increases vulnerability to the drive. The mere constant shouting of "HOT HANDS! HOT HANDS!" in practice and charting deflections might be enough to instill greater awareness of being in an active defensive position ALL THE TIME.

I've got a whole BUNCH more of these things, but I doubt anybody else would be that interested in what this one old man has to say that will likely have NO effect on how the team fares going forward.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to orangecountyvols:

Vols,

Yes, a lot of it is coaching, or lack therof.
But.............the overwhelming problem with basketball at Tennessee is who the players are.

The talk about players not caring or being fired up to play every game etc. To repeat, it's who the players are. They have to be the type of guys you can count on, not just with obvious talent which is paramount, but the pedigree of that which is evident on winning teams. For example, Craft at Ohio State. Hulls and Zeller at Indiana. Joe Harris at Virginia. A couple of the Michigan State or Michigan guys........whose names I can't recall. The point guard, Larkin at Miami. Heck, the winning teams have these players......no one has to wind them up like a clock. They have pride along with the talent.
You see these guys scrapping to the end even when the game is in doubt. Even a player we don't particularly like.........the kid at Ole Miss....
he is wound up, he wants to excell.

Yes, you have to have great coaching but without the players you can really count on, with both talent and heart..........we'll always be having
this conversation.

The Vols have, or at least had, one like that. His name is Jeronne Maymon. The loss of his oncourt leadership was the biggest effect of his injury this year, and last year the team slumped at the end because he was too hurt to play up to his previous standard. If he comes back 100% next year, it will make a night-and-day difference in how the team looks and plays.

RememberWhen writes:

in response to emailnodata:

@johnlg
Here's the deal, to me, with CCM.

He inherited a team from Bruce that knew how to defend inbounds plays with utter tenacity, and how to create points on its own inbounds plays (of screw them up, of course).

He walked in, and just tossed all that, rather than building on something that had been proven to get 3-4 baskets per game.

I see stuff such as that, and I being questioning his basketball IQ. When I see a team rejecting his on-court coaching, then I have to question their respect for him.

The ultimate difference between he and Bruce as coaches is that Bruce game plans far, far better. Neither man adjusts worth a s##t, but Bruce has the superior basketball mind.

You are absolutely correct IF you believe that BP actually did the game planning. He didn't. The difference between the BP program and the CM program is two very simple things. First, Steve Forbes and Jason Shay. Forbes was (and is) one of the top 5 recruiters in the country. Shay was (and is) one of the top 5 tacticians in the country. Between the two, it was simply a matter of BP taking the players and the game plan mixing it with some good old emotion and "chip on the shoulder" attitude and turning guys loose. It was never about the mistakes. It was always about the next play and the process under BP. When the lights went on guys would run through walls for that staff. Average players became very good or great players. JaJuan Smith, Dane Bradshaw to name two. Could CM take a 6'4" (at best) kid with zero hops and win 20+ games with him at PF???? I think we all know that answer. The recruiting has been terrible under the CM staff as has the development. In the meantime Forbes/Shay are playing for a national title for the second straight year with a record of about 58-4 and have sent a total of 11 players to D1 in 2 years. TN can't even get in the tourney after finishing 5th in one of the weakest SEC's in memory. TN can spend another two years letting this thing deteriorate until it's a complete rebuild job or they can take their medicine NOW! We all know that answer too!

johnlg00 writes:

Although I generally find you a bit overly negative, RW, you have some good points here. I agree that Forbes and Shay probably didn't get all the credit they deserved while at UT. Their subsequent record shows that they are rising stars in the coaching ranks. Without their input, Pearl wouldn't have been regarded as nearly the coaching genius some less-reflective fans have made him out to be. I would like to see some of their JC guys come to UT. They shouldn't have any grudges against the current regime since Hamilton is gone and Martin didn't have anything to do with either Pearl's dismissal or theirs.

I disagree that there has been no player development under Martin. McRae, Maymon, and Golden in particular didn't do anything under Pearl and all three have become All-SEC type players under Martin. Richardson is on the verge of joining them. Stokes decommitted after Pearl was let go, but Martin coaxed him back. Robert Hubbs is by most accounts a 5-star type player, so it is an exaggeration to say that Martin can't recruit.

I have gone into some length about what I do see as some of Martin's shortcomings that need to be remedied if the team is to fulfill its potential. I think and hope he is young enough and smart enough to learn from his first two seasons, and I think next year's team has the potential to be outstanding. "Potential" is just another word for "hasn't really done anything yet", so we will have to see if it is realized. I for one am not ready to give up yet.

chipmurphy461 writes:

“They played the game like it was the end of their lives,’’ said UT sophomore Jarnell Stokes

Seriously?!?! You're supposed to play every game like that Jarnell! You, your teammates, and coaching staff apparently need to grasp that concept!!

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