Not NIT picking: Vols will host Mercer in NIT
By Marcus Fitzsimmons | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
KNOXVILLE — It wasn’t what Tennessee had hoped for, but the Vols will try to make the most of second-straight NIT appearance after being left out of the 68-team NCAA bracket Sunday.
The Vols (20-12) will make their 13th NIT appearance Wednesday hosting Atlantic Sun champion Mercer (23-13) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“You could see the look on guys faces it’s emotional,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said Sunday night after the Vols had watched in vain for their name on the Selection Show and then waited to find out their NIT opponent. “Young guys, who put forth a great effort you finish strong down the stretch .. but this is case of we’re right there it was one of those deals of where are we going and just came up short.”
Martin knows the challenge of getting his team back on track following Friday’s loss to Alabama and the disappointment of not making the NCAA Tournament. he also knows a little about Mercer after watching the Bears beat Alabama and fold in the end against Georgia in the preconference season of December.
“I watched them play Georgia, watched them against against Alabama, watched their Lipcomb game. They really go 5-7 deep, veteran guys juniors and seniors, they start 3-4 juniors with a senior,” Martin said. “Good guards and a center that averages about seven points a game they grind you out and make you work on both ends of the floor.”
That also led Martin to the state of the Southeastern Conference, after the league was left with three NCAA clubs — eighth among the power conferences — and had three teams in the NIT.
“It’s not about one team getting in the tournament it’s about the league. I think that’s something we’re going to have to look at as coaches,” Martin said of the strength of schedule on SEC teams this season. “The caliber of players and coaches in this league, getting three teams into the tournament, that’s an embarrassment to the SEC.”
The NIT selected 32 teams for the field, with the only automatic bids going to regular-season conference champions who lost in their conference’s tournament and did not receive an at-large spot for the NCAA tournament. The first three rounds of the tournament will be played on campus sites of the higher seed in each game, and the final two rounds move to Madison Square Garden.
Tennessee lost in the second round of the NIT last season, falling 71-64 to Middle Tennessee in Knoxville after a 65-51 win over Savannah State. The Vols have exited the NIT in the first or second round in their last seven NIT appearances.
“One thing about young guys these days is they aren’t concerned with history at all unless its a year ago maybe two or they were part of it,” martin said. “I think for us, it’s doing everything in our power to win that first game moving on from there. That’s the most important thing.”
Should the Vols win Wednesday’s first-round game they will have to leave town for the second round as Thompson-Boling is already scheduled to host the first two rounds of a women’s NCAA pod. A similar scheduling situation has also forced Kentucky — a No. 2 seed — to travel in its first round game, playing at Robert Morris.