KNOXVILLE -- The Tennessee Volunteers can find motivation in a potential trip to the big city and the chance to play in one of basketball's most famous arena.
The Vols also could look further down the road and build toward avoiding the feelings that came with Sunday's night exclusion from the NCAA tournament. However they gear up for tonight's National Invitation Tournament opener against visiting Savannah State, the message from players before Tuesday's practice had a similar tone.
"I think any time you play, you want to compete, so that's what we're going to do," said point guard Trae Golden. "We can't hang our heads about anything. We just have to continue to play hard, go out here and compete. All these teams are very good teams, too."
After a late-season surge that put them on the NCAA tournament bubble, the Vols certainly were disappointed in a one-and-done trip to the SEC tournament. While it's not known if a win there might have vaulted them into the Big Dance for a seventh straight year, the challenge is moving past that emotionally and realizing what's at stake in the secondary tournament.
First-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin expects his team will handle that challenge.
"I think the biggest key," he said Sunday night, "is just playing hard and being hungry, because I think once the ball is tipped and you get after it, as a competitive basketball player you just start playing basketball at that point. This is not a team where you have nine or 10 seniors on the team. We've got guys that are still hungry to play and be successful and be a part of this program."
Even with the chance at playing two games in New York City's Madison Square Garden by winning tonight and two more times, Martin hopes his team considers an even bigger picture. With key guards such as Golden, Skylar McBee and Jordan McRae returning along with the inside duo of Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, the process of building toward next year can continue tonight.
"You've got the majority of your roster coming back," Martin said. "Guys are hungry to compete and be successful."
Martin saw success in a lesser tournament pay off a season later while he was Missouri State's coach, but the Vols can look inside their own league for an example of what effects an NIT run can have. In reaching the NIT title game last season, Alabama proved its should have been in the NCAA tournament while also gearing toward this season. Like the Crimson Tide, 2011 NIT semifinalists Wichita State and Colorado are in this year's NCAA field.
In three of his first five years at Memphis, Kentucky coach John Calipari made deep NIT runs. The Tigers reached the 2001 and won the tournament in 2002. After another run to New York City in 2005, Memphis went to two Elite Eights, the NCAA title game and a Sweet 16 the next four seasons.
"I think the things that Tennessee did all year, I'm still convinced they're an NCAA team," Calipari said on Monday's SEC coaches' teleconference. "I'm just telling you. I would suggest that they will have a good run in the NIT if they choose that. See, a lot of teams go in there and are mad about having to go play in the NIT.
"I've had teams that loved it because where we were at that time, we were trying to make statements. Our teams went in with something to prove. My hope is our teams from this league that are in the NIT have something to prove."
The Vols at least are talking that way. The next step is acting on those words.
"Sometimes you'll probably see a team who doesn't want to play in the NIT because they thought should have been in the NCAA," Golden said. "But I think that if we go out here and play with the same intensity as if we were in the NCAA without thinking about anything like that, I think we'll be fine. I think you take [your disappointment] out on the court. I think you play with a chip on your shoulder to show everybody that you should have been in the NCAA tournament."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.