published Friday, March 9th, 2012

UT Vols begin SEC tourney with NCAA vision

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee plays a basketball game tonight with its national tournament hopes on the line.

The venue and the immediate consequences for losing might be different, but the significance for the Volunteers in their SEC tournament opener is the same as it's been the past few weeks.

"Every night," point guard Trae Golden said, "we knew that if we didn't win a certain game that our tournament hopes could be down. It's just going in and playing as hard as we can.

"I think that's what we're going to do anyway."

Needing a win or two to feel better about its chances for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, second-seeded UT (18-13) takes on Ole Miss (19-12) at 7:30 p.m. EST in the SEC quarterfinals in New Orleans.

The seventh-seeded Rebels defeated Auburn in a first-round game Thursday night. The Vols overcame an early 13-point deficit in a 73-60 win against Ole Miss in Knoxville 16 days ago.

Then, just as they are now, the Vols are clinging to the approach of taking one game at a time, and they've won eight of their last nine. The only difference now that tournament play is under way is there might not be a next game.

"You've got to take it one game at a time," said first-year coach Cuonzo Martin, "but you have to play every game like it's your last game. That's very important. I don't think you're saving anything or holding anything.

"You're trying to win every game, and it's one game at a time. That's my focus: There's no tomorrow."

The Vols flew to New Orleans on Wednesday night and practiced Thursday evening at Holy Cross School, a few miles from the New Orleans Arena, where they'll play tonight. Reaching Sunday's final could really boost UT's at-large hopes, though Martin has insisted for the last two weeks his team in worthy of the NCAA tournament.

"When you say it from an NCAA standpoint as a body of work, we got out of the gates slow, but eight of the last nine, how many teams in the country ... are saying that?" Martin said. "That's impressive, the way our guys have played. When you talk about getting better as a team late, we've gotten better as a team.

"I like our chances."

While UT's precarious tournament status might be tempting to check out, the Vols are staying focused on business.

"We just try to focus on ourselves and not worry about anything else," said forward Jeronne Maymon. "We just feel like Tennessee. We know the only way to feel is going out there, playing hard-nosed defense and trying to execute our offense to stick with our game plan."

Some Vols have made the trip with a bigger goal.

"I do believe from what I'm hearing we have to win some games in New Orleans," said freshman Jarnell Stokes, "but we're planning on winning the tournament. Anything less than that is a disappointment to us."

Regardless of how soon UT's postseason comes to an end, it'll be hard to term this season a disappointment. Picked 11th in the preseason poll by the league's coaches, the Vols rallied from a 1-4 SEC start and won 10 league games in finishing second behind top-ranked Kentucky. Maymon and some of his teammates have said throughout the season and this week that the early-season disrespect served as motivation.

Though they've overachieved, the Vols certainly want to seize the opportunity in front of them and reach the NCAA tournament for the seventh straight year.

"I think it's a lot of fun just because of how hard we worked to get into this position," Golden said. "I think that it's really good for our team, and I think if we keep working hard, the sky's the limit for us."

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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