Tennessee had chances to leave its NCAA tournament fate out of the selection committee's hands and leave no doubt about its inclusion into the 68-team field, but the Vols failed to capitalize on five big opportunities that possibly could have locked up a bid.
• At Georgetown, Nov. 30: In a 37-36 loss to the eventual Big East Conference champion Hoyas, Tennessee missed 8 of 11 free throws and Jordan McRae and Skylar McBee missed 3s in the game's final seconds in what would have been a road win the Vols could have hung their hats on all season.
• At Ole Miss, Jan. 24: The Rebels had routed Tennessee by 18 in Knoxville in the SEC opener, but the Vols led 53-49 with 5:29 remaining and failed to close out a road win to avoid the sweep. Marshall Henderson poured in 24 of his 28 points in the second half.
• At Virginia, Dec. 5: The Cavaliers also ended up in the NIT despite some nice wins in the ACC, but another poor offensive showing denied Tennessee a chance at a notable nonconference road win -- and those are invaluable.
• Georgia, Feb. 6 and March 2: Take out the sweep by the Bulldogs -- a 15-17 team with an RPI of 140 -- and Tennessee is 22-10 with no losses to teams outside the RPI top 100. The Vols lost both games down the stretch in the second half.
• Vs. Alabama, Friday: A win against the Crimson Tide in the SEC tournament quarterfinals would have given Tennessee another top-100 win and earned another shot at Florida. Ole Miss won its way into the NCAA tournament in Nashville, and the Vols had a chance to do the same.
KNOXVILLE - The dejection was evident in the reaction.
The silence in the room where the Tennessee men's basketball team watched as the NCAA tournament bracket was unveiled Sunday evening without the Volunteers in the field said everything.
"Nobody had anything to tweet or say," leading scorer Jordan McRae said before the Vols returned to practice Monday afternoon. "We were just really disappointed about it. Most guys said they went home and went to sleep or something.
"I had some homework and really couldn't even focus on what I had to do. It was really just a disappointment. You can only imagine how it is to really think that you're going to get in and fall short."
Much of Cuonzo Martin's weekly news conference earlier Monday afternoon centered on the coach's analysis of why his team was left out, the perception of the SEC's weakness this season and the poor nonconference schedules by many of the league's programs.
As he was Sunday night, Martin was incredulous at the SEC earning only three bids due to what he called "a lack of respect," but he said he wasn't angry his team was left out of the 68-team NCAA tournament field.
"I'm upset for our guys because I felt like we did the work," he said. "Last year I wasn't upset, but I was hurt for our guys because of the work they put in. This year is a little bit different because I felt like we did the necessary work to be in the NCAA tournament, so that part is unfortunate."
Martin bemoaned his belief that the selection committee's criteria change from year to year. In his third season at Missouri State, Martin's Bears won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title, lost in the conference tournament and were sent to the National Invitation Tournament despite a strong Ratings Percentage Index. In a similar situation this year, Middle Tennessee State, with eight fewer wins than Tennessee against the RPI's top 100 teams, earned one of the final at-large bids into the field.
For the third consecutive season, a second-place SEC finisher (Alabama in 2011, Tennessee last season and Kentucky this season) failed to make the field. Ole Miss, which won 26 games and the SEC tournament and also tied for second, received a No. 12 seed. Alabama, the other team in the three-way tie for second, was sent to the NIT.
"It's almost like a mid-major mentality in this league when you've got your second-place team and it doesn't get in the NCAA tournament," Martin said. "This is a BCS league ... and that just shouldn't happen. What happens with mid-major teams is they schedule aggressively because they know the best-case scenario to get into the NCAA tournament is you've got to go play teams.
"Maybe we need to schedule like mid-major teams."
Martin wasn't done.
"At the rate we're going," he said later of the league's weak scheduling and poor showing during the nonconference part of the schedule, "if we don't get it corrected in some way, shape or form, you're looking at three different new guys every year at somebody else's school. Something has to give. It's about a league at the end of the day.
"If you have a new coach that doesn't have a lot, there's no reason for him to go out and schedule aggressively [because] it doesn't help his program. But when you have guys in the league that have been in the league and been around the block, we've got to do what's best for the league. Of course you've got to win games, and we understand that part, but you have so many new coaches and some guys that are building programs and you've got to be smart about how you schedule."
It's all water under the bridge for the Vols, who face a quick turnaround before Wednesday night's NIT opener against Mercer at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Everybody's upset," McRae said. "I'm still mad about it, and I'm going to be mad about it for a while. Going in there, sitting down and watching it, to really think you're going to get in and not get in is really upsetting.
"I really felt like we were going to get in. Coach Martin, he was really confident about it, which made us be confident. I just really thought we had a chance to get in."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.