KNOXVILLE — The flashback could elicit only a chuckle and shake of the head from Cuonzo Martin.
Even a year later, Tennessee's basketball coach still has difficulty believing how his final season at Missouri State ended.
The Bears were the regular-season champions of the Missouri Valley Conference, winners of seven road league games and holders of RPI spot in the top 40. A loss to Indiana State in the MVC tournament title game rendered all that insignificant. To the NIT went Missouri State.
"It's amazing," Martin said this week, "because the Missouri Valley [likely will have] two teams in this year. Wow ... it's part of it. You try to control the environment the best way possible."
Though Martin's first season with the Volunteers is in the same precarious position on the NCAA tournament bubble, he said he feels a difference in being a major-conference big boy instead of an mid-major squad fighting for respect and inclusion among the big boys.
"We laughed about that as a staff," he said.
Kent Williams and Jon Harris were Martin assistants at Missouri State and followed him to Knoxville. Though he coached for three years at Ball State, Tracy Webster has spent most of his coaching career at major-conference schools like Nebraska, DePaul, Kentucky, Illinois and Purdue. Once the little guy clamoring for respect, UT's staff is in the position of hoping every mid-major regular-season champion does what they could not do last year: win the postseason tournament and NCAA automatic bid.
When Creighton fought off Illinois State in the MVC tournament final on Sunday, the Blue Jays kept the Redbirds from making the Valley a three-bid league along with Wichita State and saved a spot for a team on the bubble for an at-large bid in the process. Virginia Commonwealth might have done a similar duty in taking down Drexel in the Colonial Athletic Association's tournament final on Monday night. Harris admitted he watched parts of both games.
"I try not to pay attention, [but] I watched some of the games," he said. "I'm good friends with [coach] Shaka Smart at VCU, so I watched their game.
"But I try no to pay attention to it, man, because it'll give you a headache. Really it's something that's our of our control, so we've just got to play one game at a time and go from there."
The Vols start playing on Friday at the SEC tournament in New Orleans against the winner of tonight's Ole Miss-Auburn matchup. They'll probably be watching some other bubble teams and how some mid-major champions perform this week as well. Some timely wins and losses by others ultimately could impact UT's own NCAA hopes.
Seaton Hall, one of ESPN bracket analyst's Joe Lunardi's projected last four teams in the field, lost to Louisville in the Big East tournament on Wednesday night.
Bubble teams begin tournament play today in the ACC (Miami and North Carolina State), Atlantic 10 (Saint Louis and Xavier), Big Ten (Northwestern), Big 12 (Texas), Mountain West (Colorado State) and Pac 12 (California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona).
The Vols hope Long Beach State avoids an upset in the Big West tournament after proving itself worthy against a schedule that included Pittsburgh, San Diego State, North Carolina, Kansas, Kansas State, Louisville and Xaiver. Two such upsets already tossed Drexel and Iona into a crowded pool of teams on the tournament's cusp.
All of the scoreboard watching becomes irrelevant when UT finally does take the court on Friday night. With two wins, the Vols likely would have done enough to warrant a spot in the NCAA tournament. Even falling short might not take the smile off Martin's face.
"I like to think we're a tournament team now," he said, "but as a coach I'm happy to see our guys getting better and to see them having fun playing basketball and with a smile on their faces. They walk into practice with a level of toughness and swagger to them. That's what makes me happy, to see these guys represent the way the represent and fight for each other."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...