KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee is playing a basketball game tonight.
It's certainly not the location, tournament or opponent the Volunteers had in mind at 6 p.m. Sunday.
Three days after suffering the letdown of not being included in the NCAA tournament bracket, the Vols are playing in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament against Mercer.
"Would I like to play in the NCAA tournament? Yeah," senior guard Skylar McBee said before the Monday afternoon practice. "You want a chance to win a national championship, but we've still got more basketball to play. We're going to do our best in the NIT and see what happens.
The motivation is the biggest key in college basketball's secondary postseason tournament, and it's not easy to find.
You're the undercard. You're not in the bracket millions of people have discussed, predicted and spent money on since Sunday evening.
But you're playing for pride, a possible trip to New York City and a trophy.
As he did with the Vols last season, coach Cuonzo Martin must make his team care about the NIT.
"It's tough," he said, "especially when you were right there. It was different if you had a week off and you knew you weren't there and now you can practice and have a little fun with it. When you're right there and you felt like you made it as a team, it's emotionally taxing on you."
The Vols can use the NIT to prove they deserved the better tournament. The flip side is that they take the floor with the thoughts of what could have been still rattling around in their minds. There hardly seems to be any middle ground.
"As long we're in those four lines, we've got to be ready to go, no matter what it is," leading scorer Jordan McRae said. "I feel like everybody should be ready to go and should be ready to play. As long as there's games to play, everybody should be ready to play.
"There's no sense of making matters worse by going and losing this first game."
Can the Vols, who certainly will look differently next season with Jeronne Maymon back healthy and five-star shooting guard Robert Hubbs on the roster, truly benefit from a deep NIT run?
"I don't think so," Martin answered when asked about the possibility of a carryover effect.
"It could," he added. "You can get better."
Tennessee has a 13-12 record for its previous 12 NITs. The Vols reached the semifinals in 1985 and won the third-place game. Middle Tennessee State knocked the Vols out in the second round last season, nearly a year before nabbing one of the final bids to the NCAA tournament.
"You can't think you're bigger than the NIT," Martin said. "You had an opportunity to be in the NCAA tournament. We didn't [make it], and it's part of it."
Said McBee: "As a competitor, you're going to play ball, and once you get on the floor, it don't matter really what tournament you're playing in."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
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 ...