No. 7 Mercer (23-11) at No. 2 Tennessee (20-12)
Wednesday, March 20, 8:00 p.m. ET
Thompson-Boling Arena (21,678) . Knoxville, Tenn.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Mercer leads 3-1
Up next: Winner plays at No. 3 BYU (Date TBD)
Probable Mercer Starters
C-Daniel Coursey, 6-10, 220, JR, (7.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.3 bpg)
F-Jakob Gollon, 6-6, 200, JR, (8.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.2 spg)
G-Bud Thomas, 6-6, 200, JR, (7.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.7 apg)
G-Travis Smith, 6-3, 185, SR, (13.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg, .421 3FG%)
G-Langston Hall, 6-4, 180, JR, (11.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.9 apg)
Key Reserves: Anthony White Jr. (6-2, 170, JR); Monty Brown (6-11, 250, JR); T.J. Hallice (6-9, 205, SO)
Probable Tennessee Starters
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 270, SO, (12.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg, .531 FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 188, SO, (7.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, .473 FG%)
G-Armani Moore, 6-5, 203, FR, (2.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-5, 178, JR, (16.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg, .364 3PT%)
G-Trae Golden, 6-2, 205, JR, (11.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.0 apg)
Key Reserves: Skylar McBee (6-3, 195, SR); Kenny Hall (6-9, 230, SR); Quinton Chievous (6-5, 200, FR)
The opening tip
The Vols fell just short of making the NCAA tournament, but life, and basketball, goes on for them. Preparing for an NIT matchup against Mercer wasn’t where they saw themselves being at this time last week; however, their ability to get over the Big Dance snub and move on could play a big part in how long they can extend their season.
Traditionally, major-conference programs have struggled against mid-majors in the NIT. It’s a chance for the smaller schools to prove themselves against better-known names and often times the bigger schools are disappointed to not be the NCAA tournament.
UT is just 13-12 all-time in the NIT and has lost five of its last six. Three of those losses have come to mid-majors – Middle Tennessee (2012), Georgia Mason (2004) and College of Charleston (1996).
It will have another tough challenge on tap against a Mercer squad that fell just short of the NCAA tournament itself. The Bears won the regular-season Atlantic Sun championship, but fell to Florida Gulf Coast in the conference tournament finals. They knocked off Florida State and Alabama – a team the Vols were just 1-2 against this year.
Led by senior guard Travis Smith, Mercer is a veteran squad that can go 10-deep with experienced player. The Bears surround center Daniel Coursey with four athletic players who can run and shoot.
For Tennessee, the key will be finding ways into the lane after stalling out in a 58-48 loss to Alabama in the SEC quarterfinals last Friday. The Vols jacked up 23 shots in that contest. Whether it be by throwing the ball into the post to Jarnell Stokes or the penetration of guards Trae Golden or Jordan McRae, UT can’t settle for too many outside shots.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin on getting his team up for playing in the NIT:
“Hopefully we can play some different guys that have some energy and give some guys that haven’t played a lot the opportunity to play the game, but it’s not easy. We do our jobs as coaches to get our guys ready to play, but you like to think once the ball is tipped, its basketball, but it’s easier said than done.”
Mercer allows just 58.2 points per game. . Tickets will be $10 each and general admission for fans. Parking will be free around the arena. . Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman was the A-Sun Coach of the Year in 2012-13. . Mercer is located in Macon, Ga., and has an enrollment of 8,200. . UT and Mercer last played in 1993, with the Vols coming out on top 67-45 in Thompson-Boling Arena. . Tennessee has never advanced past the semifinals of the NIT. . The Vols are in line to host a second-round game if they beat Mercer, but due to Knoxville hosting the NCAA women’s tournament, they will have to travel if they advance.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga