The road back to the NCAA tournament for Tennessee’s basketball game begins in earnest in the Bahamas.
The Vols will have plenty of chances to build a tournament resume in 2013-14, with home games against ACC schools NC State and Virginia and road games at Wichita State-which played in the Final Four last April and is a certain preseason Top 25 team-and Xavier. But the opportunity awaiting Tennessee in the Battle 4 Atlantis is significant. That tournament’s field isn’t as strong as it was a year ago, when eventual national champion Louisville and NCAA tournament participants Duke, VCU, Missouri, Memphis and Minnesota took part, but it could provide the Vols with good competition for three consecutive days and an opportunity to bulk up their NCAA tournament credentials.
Pairings were announced on Monday, and Tennessee starts the tournament, played in Parasdise Island, Bahamas, against UTEP, which returns three starters from a team that finished 18-14 and 10-6 in Conference USA a year ago. A win over the Miners gets the Vols a game against either preseason consensus Top 25 pick Iowa, which returns five starters from its 2013 NIT runner-up team, or Xavier.
Another win and chances are good Tennessee will run into Kansas, which, though it loses five starters from last season, will be a solid preseason Top 25 team. The addition of Andrew Wiggins, the consensus No. 1 player in the country, helps the Jayhawks replace NBA lottery pick Ben McLemore, and coach Bill Self and his staff have surrounded Wiggins with a strong freshman class that includes McDonald’s All-American Wayne Selden and shooters Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene.
The Jayhawks also return sophomore Perry Ellis, who made great improvement as last season progressed and seems poised to elevate his game even further. Tarik Black, a transfer from Memphis who is immediately eligible as a senior, will fortify the frontcourt.
Kansas plays Wake Forest, which has fallen on lean times in recent years, in the first round, and if the Jayhawks win, their opponent will be USC or Villanova. After a brief downturn of their own, the Wildcats finished 20-14, 10-8 in the Big East and played in the NCAA tournament last season.
Outside of the Wichita State, Xavier, Virginia and NC State and the Battle 4 Atlantis, the rest of Tennessee’s non-conference schedule is manageable. Division II Tusculum makes a rare appearance as a non-Division I program on the Vols schedule, and it’s basically a free pass. Win or lose, it won’t count against the Vols’ RPI or strength of schedule.
Other games, all at home, include the usual couple of in-state teams, Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech, USC Upstate and The Citadel, which the Vols host as part of the Battle 4 Atlantis.