KNOXVILLE – For the second consecutive season, a late-season surge wasn’t enough to get Tennessee into the NCAA tournament.
The Vols fell short last season despite winning eight of their last nine regular-season games. After an identical finish this year, they again fell just short of being named to the field of 68 on Sunday evening.
“Tennessee had a lot of conversation, as did all the last group of teams we evaluated,” said NCAA tournament committee chairman Mike Bobinski in an interview with CBS immediately after the brackets were released. “We have a lot of respect for the improvement Tennessee showed down the stretch this season.
"During that time, though, they honestly didn’t beat many powerful teams. I think it really came down to that more than anything. The sweep during the season by Ole Miss of Tennessee I think was a factor also when we evaluated them in the final analysis.”
La Salle (21-9), Boise State (21-10), St Mary’s (27-6) and Middle Tennessee (28-5) were the final four schools selected to the tournament. The Vols had more top-50 RPI victories (3) than did St. Mary’s and MTSU combined (2).
“I don’t think it came down to MTSU and Tennessee, because at the end of the day, even though you’re in a league, you have to take care of your own business, that’s the most important thing,” coach Cuonzo Martin said Sunday night after the brackets were released. “I think we were in position with scheduling, some games you come up short in, but it’s about Tennessee doing what we need to do, not consuming ourselves with who got in. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due – those guys fought to build their resumes to get in.”
Tennessee, instead, drew a No. 2 seed in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and will host Mercer (23-11), the Atlantic Sun regular-season champion, in an opening-round game on Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET (ESPNU) at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.
Mercer fell to Florida Gulf Coast 88-75 in the A-Sun conference tournament championship and defeated Florida State and Alabama during the regular season.
“I’ve watched them play quite a bit,” Martin said. “They really go five to seven deep, veteran guys. They start, I believe, four juniors and one senior. They live by their guards. Good guards. They have a center that averages about seven points a game. [Coach] Bob [Hoffman] does a good job. They defend you, they grind you out, they make you work on both ends of the court.”
The winner of that matchup will play at the winner of BYU-Washington in the second round (date TBD). Tennessee would be a higher seed than either team, but due to the NCAA women’s tournament being held in Knoxville, the Vols would be forced to play on the road during that round. They could potentially host a quarterfinal game on March 26 or 27 if they are the highest remaining seed in that matchup.
Tennessee has struggled recently in the NIT, losing five of its last six games – including a second-round loss to Middle Tennessee in 2012.
UT's failure to make the Big Dance marks the longest drought in which Tennessee has gone without the basketball team making the NCAA tournament or the football team making a bowl since 1963-1964.
Click here for the full NCAA tournament bracket.
Click here for the full NIT bracket.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga