UT’s NCAA audition doesn’t go well
By Marcus Fitzsimmons | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Forget what the brackets will say Sunday night, the first NCAA play-in game was Friday afternoon in Bridgestone Arena.
The SEC may call it a conference tournament quarterfinal.
Cuonzo Martin may say UT already earned a dance card, but Friday’s answer to THE question was a little more a resume regurgitation than the cool confidence the UT coach had earlier in the week.
“I think up until last Saturday, you had nine (SEC) teams were the top 100, The only league that had more was the Big East. You finish 8 out of the last
9, 9 out of your last 11 at this point in one of the best leagues in the country. So we beat top 25 teams, four if I’m not mistaken, you beat top 50 teams, top 100 teams. Our resume stacks up against the best when you’re talking about a bubble team, per se,” Martin said Friday.
It was in fact, a play-in game and one Tennessee not only did not win, but let another bubble team win while managing to smudge all the polish it’s striven so hard to apply the last six weeks.
Alabama was the thunderstorm before the buffing was complete and the polish dry on UT’s ride to the postseason.
In all likelihood, the Vols will be setting up for a first-round home game in the NIT come Monday’s sunrise and Alabama will be the bubble team that played it’s way in to the big dance.
Which would be one of the few cases that would make sense. The Vols played their way into a the quarterfinals on a bye last year and didn’t get in. Even with a 20-win season and winning the way into the quarterfinals this year, UT didn’t do anything to add to its case that the Vols are among the best four teams in the SEC this season.
And really isn’t that what this was all about?
Winning the conference title hasn’t mattered nearly as much since the field expanded from 48 to 64. Maybe even a little less now that it’s 68. It’s no longer a guarantee of the best seed or respect. It’s just a coupon for free admission that takes some of the anxiety out of Sunday night and the rights to hang a banner next fall. The Vols haven’t won those rights since Stokely Athletic Center was in useful service as home court and and the Ernie & Bernie Show still too recent to call the good ole days.
The SEC’s showplace for teams to refine their best moves and make a last impression to wow the judges of the selection committee hasn’t been kind to UT.
The Vols looked more the squad with a disruptive defense and offense capable of playing down to anyone that it showed against Georgetown in the early going than the team that grew up to grind out a 9-of-10 win streak.
Jordon McRae had an off day from his All-SEC regular season and the Vols looked lost without him against Alabama. UT couldn’t hit free throws, couldn’t hit 3s and by the end couldn’t hit layups. The bench was outscored and UT was merely even rebounding against a four-guard line up.
It was not Tennessee’s finest 40 minutes.
Despite that Italian tutorial this summer, the emergence of McRae the reassurtion of Jarnell Stokes and his string of double-double efforts, Tennessee looked the hard-working chorus girl Friday, not the refined and smooth dancer ready for the next round.
It will take a big reprieve for UT to be granted a call back after the Vols lost their play-in game.
Marcus Fitzsimmons is sports editor at The Daily Times. Follow hom on Twitter @TDT_Sports. He wrote from Nashville.