KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee isn’t griping about the fact it will have to begin NCAA tournament play a little earlier than it expected.
The Volunteers are simply relieved to be in the field at all.
Tennessee (21-12) faces Iowa (20-12) on Wednesday in the First Four at Dayton, Ohio. The winner meets No. 6 seed Massachusetts (24-8) on Friday in Midwest Regional action at Raleigh, N.C.
The Vols hoped their late-season surge would keep them out of the First Four, but they like this scenario better than a third straight NIT appearance. Each of the last two years, Tennessee was optimistic about getting an NCAA bid on the day the selections were announced, only to end up disappointed.
“The NIT isn’t fun,” Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes said Monday. “As we practiced today, we just pictured how it was last year when we saw those NIT balls in our gym. Guys were mad, ready to fight each other. It was very ugly. We were very happy today. We’re actually playing for something meaningful.”
This marks the first NCAA tournament appearance in the head coaching career of Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin, who avoided a fourth consecutive trip to the NIT. Martin had reached the NIT in his final season at Missouri State before coming to Tennessee.
“I’m just excited for the program, the fans that were there through thick and thin and continued to support,” Martin said. “I’m happy for all of them. You wouldn’t imagine how many former players - I’m not just talking about basketball, but football, baseball, volleyball, (people in the) military - who send letters and emails (saying), ‘We support you guys.’ It’s just tremendous for those people that really stuck with our program.”
Tennessee earned its bid with the type of late-season surge that has become customary during Martin’s three-year tenure. The Vols won five consecutive games by an average margin of 23 points before falling 56-49 to No. 1 Florida in the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals Saturday.
Now they want to build on that momentum.
“This would mean everything to me,” Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said. “This was one of the main reasons I came back (for my senior year), just to get a chance to go to the tournament, and we’re doing it. We’re not satisfied with just getting to the tournament.”
Martin said that even when Tennessee was struggling, he believed the Vols could get an NCAA bid if they played consistently effective defense. The Vols haven’t allowed any of their last five opponents to exceed 54 points.
That sets up an interesting matchup with Iowa. The Hawkeyes average 82 points per game to rank ninth among all Division I teams. Tennessee hasn’t given up more than 78 points in a game all season.
That isn’t the only difference between the two teams. While Tennessee has won five of its last six games, Iowa has lost six of its last seven. That late-season slump caused the Hawkeyes, who were ranked much of the season, to slide into one of the tournament’s so-called “play-in” games.
“You can’t control matchups, can’t control where you’re going, can’t control who you’re playing,” Iowa forward Aaron White said. “Just be grateful we’re going somewhere and that we have an opportunity to win the thing.”
One thing Iowa and Tennessee have in common is a lack of NCAA tournament appearance. Iowa earned its last NCAA bid since 2006, while Tennessee is here for the first time since 2011. Memphis transfer Antonio Barton is the only Vol who has played meaningful minutes in an NCAA tournament game.