KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee's six-year run of NCAA tournament appearances officially ended on Sunday.
There's still basketball to be played, though, and the significance of what's left is all in the Volunteers' hands.
UT fell short of the big bracket, but the Vols' late-season charge earned them a top seed in the 32-team National Invitational Tournament and a first-round home game with Savannah State on Tuesday night (8 p.m., ESPNU). Tickets for the game will be general admission and cost $10.
"We want to be an NCAA tournament program every year," first-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin said Sunday night. "That's the goal. I think we'll have the personnel to do that.
"It's not disappointing [to miss the NCAA tournament], especially not from where we started. The guys made great strides. I talk about it all the time and I told the guys, you can never take any game or win for granted because you never know when you'll get the next one."
Much like a lower-tier bowl game, motivation is a factor with teams in the NIT, the little brother to the NCAA tournament. For the Vols (18-14), it's a chance to play three home games, earn a trip to New York City for the semifinals and win a title. More importantly, it's a chance for UT to build for next season with the core of its team returning.
Martin has seen how success in a lesser postseason tournament can paid dividends the following season. Missouri State won the Collegeinsider.com tournament in Martin's second season and took the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title the following year. A year after playing in the NIT championship game, Alabama and Wichita State are preparing for NCAA tournament games.
"When you're able to play games and win them, that's very important," Martin said. "I've said it before, it's rare that teams have an opportunity to win their last game. Not many teams can say that, so if you have the opportunity to do that, you want to take full advantage."
UT failed to capitalize on that chance in an overtime loss to Ole Miss in the SEC tournament quarterfinals on Friday. Now there's a new opportunity to extend Martin's first season, beginning with Savannah State (21-11), which has lost two games since Jan. 3. After a slew of early-season blowout losses in guarantee games against major-conference competition, the Tigers rolled to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season title, which earned them an automatic NIT berth.
With a win, the Vols would face either Marshall or Middle Tennessee State in the second round. Miami hosts Valparaiso and La Salle hosts Minnesota in the other half of UT's fourth of the bracket. The Vols lost their NIT opener in each of their last three trips in 2004, 2003 and 1996.
After a short practice Sunday afternoon, the Vols gathered to watch the NCAA tournament selection show, which aired three hours before the NIT selection show. Martin called his team's hopes of a seventh NCAA bid "50-50." Much like he has said the past few weeks, the hope was UT's 10-6 SEC record and 8-2 finish to the season would be enough to warrant an at-large bid.
It wasn't, and though Martin hardly seemed disappointed in not reaching college basketball's biggest stage, it's not a feeling he hopes to feel in the future.
"I go back to the fact that it's a body of work," he said. "We got out of the gates slow, did a great job down the stretch [and] for me as a coach, I can't be upset with our guys because I saw the progress they made. Unfortunately we didn't do the job up front, and I say unfortunate because we didn't win games. [The players] were also learning in the system trying to find their way how to compete and how to play hard, so it's hard as a coach to be upset with your guys.
"Now you bring me a year from now and we're standing here and that happens, it'd be a problem. Those guys understand the system, they know what's expected and the level we have to play to. Barring injury, we should be an NCAA tournament team next year."