KNOXVILLE — Cuonzo Martin stood in the same spot on the night of Selection Sunday for the third consecutive year.
But it's been a different feeling each year for Tennessee's basketball coach.
For the second consecutive season, the Volunteers were left out of the NCAA tournament and relegated to the National Invitation Tournament, where Tennessee hosts Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season champion Mercer on Wednesday at 8 p.m.
"It seems like, at times, every year it's something different," Martin said in the lobby of Tennessee's basketball offices Sunday night after the dust had settled. "But once again, like I tell our guys, we've got to keep it out of the committee's hands, and that's the most important thing. It seems like I'm saying something different every year."
Either the last team in the 68-team field or one of the first teams out according to most projections, Tennessee appeared likely to end up in a first-round play-in game in Dayton on Tuesday or Wednesday night.
Those spots instead went to Middle Tennessee State, St. Mary's, La Salle and Boise State.
Two years ago, Martin, then at his third season at Missouri State, was in the same position as those mid-major conference teams that earned at-large bids, but the Bears were left out of the NCAA field after losing in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament despite winning that league's regular-season title.
"I've been at the mid-major level, and I know how hard you have to work, and sometimes at the mid-major to schedule to certain opponents, they don't want to play you," he said. "You have to take your hats off to MTSU for actually getting in because I remember at Missouri State we were in a very similar situation, and we didn't get in. I don't think it came down to MTSU and Tennessee, because at the end of the day … you've got to take care of your own business, and that's the most important thing.
"I thought we were in positing with [our scheduling]. Some games you came up short in, but at the end of the day it's about Tennessee doing what we need to do. It's not necessarily consuming ourselves with who got in, because those guys fought to build their resumes, and they got in."
A comparison of the resumes shows the Vols have a legitimate argument that they deserved one of the final spots in the tournament.
Though lower in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) than the teams that those final four at-large teams, Tennessee has won three games against the RPI's top-50 teams and nine against the top-100. MTSU had one top-100 win, and St. Mary's each beat just one team in the top 50. La Salle and Boise State were the fifth teams in the field out of the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West, respectively.
Though it won 28 games, MTSU, after losing in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament to Florida International, received a bid with just one top-100 win, which came against Ole Miss at home on Dec. 8. The Blue Raiders, who beat Tennessee in Knoxville in last season's NIT, won 12 games away from Murfreesboro, but the average RPI of those teams was 159.
La Salle had three top-50 wins to go with losses to Massachusetts and Xavier -- teams Tennessee beat -- and the Explorers dropped a home game to 13-17 Central Connecticut State. Boise State beat top-50 teams Creighton, UNLV, Colorado State and San Diego State, but the Broncos' 5-9 road record includes bad losses to Utah and Nevada. St. Mary's, which lost three meetings with Gonzaga, beat Creighton at home, but the Gaels' next best wins were a sweep of BYU.
After the brackets were unveiled, NCAA tournament selection committee Chairman Mike Bobinksi was asked during the CBS telecast about the Vols being left out.
"Tennessee had a lot of conversation, as did all of those last group of teams that we evaluated," he said. "We really worked hard and have a lot of respect for the improvement that Tennessee showed down the stretch of the season. During that time, though, they honestly didn't beat a lot of very powerful teams and, again, struggled to win on the road during the course of the year.
"I think it really came down to that more than anything, and the sweep during the season by Ole Miss of Tennessee was a factor, I think."
After starting 11-10 and 3-6 in the SEC, Tennessee won nine of its next 11 games, a stretch that included wins against Kentucky, Florida and Missouri and four wins in five road games.
The Vols, 7-9 in road and neutral-site games, played a strong nonconference schedule. They missed a potential marquee win in a one-point loss at Georgetown -- a game in which they made just three of 11 free throws and missed two game-winning shot attempts.
Ole Miss and Georgia swept Tennessee, and the Vols lost two of three meetings with Alabama.
"As a coach, you've got to put your guys in position to win ball games," Martin said, "so you go back on it, you look at the early games in the season and what could I have done better as a coach to get this guy prepared, to get this guy to make a shot."
Those might be the same questions Martin's asked himself each of the past three seasons.
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 ...