KNOXVILLE – For the first time since 2011, the Vols are heading to the NCAA tournament.
But there will be one extra step for a Tennessee team that finished 21-12 overall, 11-7 in the SEC and was bounced in the semifinals of the SEC tournament by No. 1 overall seed Florida.
The Vols will meet Iowa in the ‘First Four’ in Dayton, Ohio, a miniature round that was added when the NCAA tournament expanded to 68 teams.
The last four at-large selections and the final four automatic qualifiers will meet in Dayton on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Vols will take on the Hawkeyes on Wednesday at 9:10 p.m. ET (TruTV) with the winner claiming the No. 11 seed in the Midwest region and then going on to face No. 6 UMass in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday.
Two wins for Tennessee would lead to a likely meeting with No. 3 Duke in the Round of 32.
“I think more than anything I knew our guys deserved it, so just making sure they get an opportunity… I’m just happy,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said on Sunday evening after the brackets were announced. “This is a team game, not necessarily for me … but just excited for the program, the fans that were there through the thick and thin, continued to support, happy for all of them.”
The Vols and Hawkeyes are teams that have been trending in different directions. Tennessee, thought to be in true danger of missing the tournament just a couple of weeks ago, rallied down the stretch to win its final four regular season games. After earning a double bye in the SEC tournament, Tennessee knocked off South Carolina in the quarterfinals before falling to the Gators on Saturday despite leading by as many as 10 points in the game.
Iowa (20-12, 9-9 Big Ten), meanwhile, lost five of its last six regular season games and fell to Northwestern (14-19) in the opening round of the Big Ten conference tournament. The Hawkeyes appeared to be in great shape for the postseason heading into February, but their late swoon put that status in jeopardy.
The Hawkeyes finished first in the Big Ten in scoring at 82 points per game, while the Vols were second in the SEC in scoring D at 61.1 points per contest. Tennessee has been particularly stingy on the defensive end recently, holding its last four opponents to just 47.4 points per game.
“I’ve probably seen [Iowa play] eight times this season, so I’m familiar with how they go about their business,” Martin said. “Very good transition team, they have two guys that had over 100 assists this season, they play about 12 guys … talented ball club.”
This is Tennessee’s 20th all-time appearance in the Big Dance and the first ever trip for Martin as a head coach. The Vols are 0-2 in games played in Dayton and 1-2 against Iowa, with the most recent meeting coming in 2000, an 80-68 win for the Vols.
Did Tennessee get a raw deal by having to participate in the additional round? It’s up for debate. The Vols did have the highest RPI, and strength of schedule of the four at-large teams playing in Dayton.
But the perception of a weak SEC and bad losses to Texas A&M (twice), Vanderbilt and UTEP all worked against Tennessee. The argument can be made either way, but the Vols will have a chance to prove they deserve better if they can make an impressive run.
Tennessee made a conscious effort to play a difficult out-of-conference schedule that included the trip to the Bahamas, a trip to Xavier and home games against NC State and Virginia, three teams that all made the tournament.
“I thought we’d probably have a better seed than the one we had, yes,” Martin said. “When you’re talking about a BPI (Basketball Power Index) of 31, 42 RPI and you look at some of the other teams, you’ve just got to keep rolling."
This selection process could lead to future changes in how the Vols handle their schedule.
“You’ve got to regroup when you look at scheduling," he added. "Is it best just to get 14 [non-conference] home wins? You’ve really got to look at it. You look at some of these teams, they’ve won a lot of games and you go into league play and you win games, you get ranked in the preseason and it seems like when you’re ranked in the preseason, you get in the tournament.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga