published Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Vols express confidence in NCAA bid

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin reacts to play against Alabama during their NCAA college game at the Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville.
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin reacts to play against Alabama during their NCAA college game at the Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Cuonzo Martin probably is accustomed to the wait by now.

For the third season in a row, the coach is waiting for 6 p.m. on Selection Sunday to see if he'll get the chance to coach an NCAA basketball tournament game.

After his second Tennessee team lost Friday to Alabama, Martin faced his most suspenseful wait.

"You'll watch games -- it's just what you do," he said Friday evening, long after the Crimson Tide's 58-48 win, of his Saturday plans. "I'll finish watching the SEC tournament. It's what you do, because it's league games.

"But I'm not paying attention to 'Are we in? We out?' That stuff wears you out. I think we've done our job to be an NCAA tournament team. When you win eight out of the last nine in the SEC, you deserve to be in the NCAA tournament. If not, it's just an insult to the SEC."

The Volunteers weren't the only NCAA tournament bubble team to lose Friday. La Salle, Virginia and Kentucky followed suit, and other bubblers such as Alabama, Maryland, Massachusetts failed to convert chances at marquee conference tournament wins. Memphis staved off Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA final to keep the Golden Eagles from potentially stealing a bid.

Even while he waited for his postgame interview with Tennessee's broadcast team of Bob Kesling and Bert Bertelkamp, Martin -- whose final team at Missouri State two years ago waited a week to learn a Missouri Valley conference regular-season title wasn't enough for an at-large bid -- checked the day's scores on his smartphone.

Then again, the coach, whose demeanor never seems to veer too far from calm and collected, might do that regardless of the situation.

"I think in this particular case, I don't mind waiting because I feel good about it," Martin said. "I think the thing in the back of mind is last season I felt like our preseason wasn't as good. We were 8-4 in the preseason this year and played some quality teams, so I feel good about it now."

It's true that the Vols' nonconference resume -- with no bad losses, facing quality teams such as Georgetown, Oklahoma State and Memphis, and decent wins against Wichita State, UMass and Xavier -- is better this season than last year, when losses to Austin Peay, College of Charleston and Oakland were black eyes on the profile.

Yet there still are holes in the profile. Tennessee lacks a marquee win away from home, and two losses each to Ole Miss, Alabama and Georgia are hard to ignore. The Vols will hope the tournament's selection committee sees the quality of the schedule, a 3-3 record against the RPI's top 50 teams and nine wins against the RPI's top 100 as enough reason to give them an at-large bid.

"I feel like we definitely deserve a spot," guard Josh Richardson said. "We went 9-and-2 the last 11 games, so we're on a roll right now. Not many other teams in the country can say they've done that."

Should the Vols be sent to the National Invitation Tournament for the second consecutive year, they'll rue a number of missed chances.

Tennessee made just three of 11 free throws and settled for two long 3s in a one-point loss at Georgetown, the eventual Big East champion. The Vols lost close games to Memphis at home and Alabama and Ole Miss on the road. The putrid bottom of the SEC -- South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn have RPIs in the mid-200s -- doesn't help, nor does the league's poor showing during the non-onference portion of the season.

Nevertheless, it's judgment day for the Vols, who will be either jubilant or despondent by 7 this evening.

"I'm definitely confident," senior Kenny Hall said. "I know what we've got, and we've got NCAA potential. We've got an NCAA team.

"Somebody else might feel differently than me, but I wouldn't say it's tough. It'd just something you've got to wait for, and whatever is next we've just got to be ready for it."

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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