KNOXVILLE – Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin declared UT’s journey for a bid in the NCAA tournament a done deal after the Vols knocked off Missouri 64-62 in Knoxville on Saturday afternoon.
“I think we’re an NCAA Tournament team,” he said in his postgame remarks. “There are 68 teams, and I think we’re one of them. I think the job is done and now the next phase for us is to compete in the tough SEC tournament in Nashville. I think that the work is done for the NCAA.”
Not to say that he backtracked on Monday, but Martin was a bit more diplomatic perhaps in his comments about where his team stands in the larger picture.
“I think you still need to win games,” he said at his weekly press conference. “One thing I told our guys, when you look at a body of work, and you can probably take 20 teams, bubble teams, or whatever, Tennessee is just as good, if not better, when you talk about the opponents we have played, the games we have won, where we played teams at, and the schedule.
RECORD: 19-11 (11-7 SEC)
RPI: 55 (per NCAA.com)
SOS: 35 (per ESPN.com)
vs. RPI top 50: 4-4
vs. RPI top 100: 9-9
BEST WIN: Florida (RPI: 6)
WORST LOSS: Georgia (RPI: 126)
“I feel good from that standpoint, but like I told our guys, lets not leave this in anyone’s hands. The best way to be sure about it is to do what you need to do. We have to continue to win ball games, that is the most important thing.”
And while there’s no guaranteed win total or RPI that gets a bubble team such as Tennessee an at-large spot in the Big Dance, it’s a safe bet that Martin was closer to the truth on Monday. The Vols are in decent shape, but still have work to do as they prepare for the SEC tournament, which begins for them on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. ET in Nashville against the winner of South Carolina (14-17) and Mississippi State (9-21).
From a bracketology perspective, Tennessee is teetering right on the bubble. As of late Monday night, ESPN.com bracket expert Joe Lunardi had the Vols as one of his first four teams out of the tournament. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com had the Vols in as one of the last four. Either way, a good showing in Nashville would have the Vols feeling much better come Selection Sunday.
“Regardless of whether we are in or not, I still want to win the SEC tournament,” forward Jarnell Stokes said. “I’m not really worried about the NCAA tournament. I just want to win the next game.”
Winning at least one, and possibly two games in the SEC tournament could be a necessity for this squad to make the final field of 68. That’s especially true when multiple SEC squads are competing for the final spots. Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ole Miss are among the teams near the cut line. The Vols are on a crash course with the Crimson Tide in the quarterfinals on Friday, perhaps setting up a game with enormous implications for both sides.
More minutes for Edwards?: Martin said that he would make only minor adjustments for the SEC tournament, but one move might be more minutes for junior swingman D’Montre Edwards.
“I think when you are trying to go four games in four days, I think he is right there as far as earning those minutes,” Martin said of Edwards. “I think he can help us, he can make a shot, he is an offensive threat. He is a guy who can rebound. I think he is right there as far as getting those minutes.”
Edwards, a junior college transfer, has appeared in 15 games this year, but has only played a total of two minutes in the last six contests combined. The junior is averaging 2.5 points per game and 1.8 rebounds per contest on the season.
Stokes honored: Sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes was named the SEC’s Player of the Week for the second time this year for his performances against Auburn and Missouri last week.
Stokes combined for 24 points and 25 rebounds in the two UT victories. It’s the second time this season he’s been honored. Point guard Trae Golden has also received the honor twice this season, giving UT four total recipients – more than any other team in the conference.
Martin a finalist for Ben Jobe Award: Martin has been selected as one of 20 finalists for the Ben Jobe Award, given annually to the top minority basketball coach in Division I.
Martin won the award in 2011 after guiding Missouri State to a 26-9 overall record. Mike Anderson (Arkansas), Frank Haith (Missouri) and Anthony Grant (Alabama) are the other three finalists from the SEC.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga