Tennessee Vols scoff at play-in skepticism

Tennessee Vols scoff at play-in skepticism

March 18th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee guard Jordan McRae (52) and post man Jeronne Maymon (34) consider Wednesday's game against Iowa in Dayton, Ohio, as their first real NCAA tournament game. Both played briefly in the closing minutes in the Vols' 2011 opening-round loss.

Tennessee guard Jordan McRae (52) and post man...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon were buried at the end of Tennessee's bench the last time the Volunteers made the NCAA tournament in 2011.

And though both players got into the game for the final minutes of an embarrassing 30-point first-round loss to Michigan in Charlotte, neither of the two current seniors considered that their true tournament debut.

That will come Wednesday night against Iowa in Dayton in a "First Four" game.

"We got beat by 30, and they didn't shoot a free throw the whole game," McRae recalled Monday afternoon just before the Vols boarded the bus for Ohio. "That's not a good way. I wouldn't tell my kids about that."

The Wolverines, starting a couple of future NBA guards in Tim Hardaway Jr. and Darius Morris, outscored the Vols 42-16 in the second half of Bruce Pearl's final game as Tennessee's coach. Maymon and McRae, who combined to play only 180 minutes that season, got in at the end.

"Everything leading up to that game was pretty interesting," said Maymon, who transferred in from Marquette in 2010.

"I played more minutes than him in that game, but he scored more than me," he added with a laugh. "I'd say this is our first real NCAA tournament."

Some detractors, though, have begun to debate even that point.

Since Tennessee is playing in Dayton, it was one of the last four at-large teams into the tournament, and though the meeting with the Hawkeyes and the Xavier-North Carolina State game preceding it are play-in games to the 64-team bracket, the NCAA officially refers to the games as first-round games, with the second round being played Thursday and Friday.

In continuing with the negativity that's swirled around third-year coach Cuonzo Martin and his program for most of the season, the notion that the Vols really aren't in the NCAA tournament yet has surfaced in Knoxville.

"It's how it always is with us," McRae said. "We do something, but it's not good enough. We beat somebody, but we didn't beat 'em how we're supposed to. We're in the tournament, but we're not in our how we're supposed to be. It's just the Vols.

"The whole tournament thing, 'We're in, but we're not in,' I've never heard of that. You're either in or you're not."

The Vols' leading scorer wasn't the only player to scoff at the notion.

"We've got a chance to win the national championship, so it's obviously the tournament," guard Josh Richardson said. "We've just got to come out and play well. The last few seasons haven't gone the way we wanted to, so I could understand some doubt. We're just going to have to prove everybody wrong."

"They called our name, didn't they? That's all that matters," Maymon said. "So we're going go out there and get a win. There's always people that's going to doubt you, but you've got to prove 'em wrong, so I guess this is a good opportunity for us."

The NCAA tournament expanded from 65 teams to 68 teams and adopted its current format -- two games featuring 16 seeds and two games with the final four at-large teams in Dayton the first Tuesday and Wednesday of the tournament -- in 2011, and each season at least one team won twice to reach the round of 32.

"I'm definitely not satisfied with being in the last four in," All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes said. "As far as my satisfaction, no, I'm not happy with it, but our name popped up on the screen. We have to be at least happy with that. I'm glad we're not an SMU-type team or the teams that didn't get in."

The Mustangs were probably the biggest snub of the tournament and, like the Vols have done the past two years, are now preparing to play in the National Invitation Tournament. Other NIT teams such as Missouri, Arkansas, Minnesota and California certainly would trade places with Tennessee.

"The NIT isn't fun," Stokes said. "As we practiced today, we just pictured how it was last year when we saw those NIT balls in our gym. Guys were mad and ready to fight each other. It was very ugly. We were very happy today. We're actually fighting for something meaningful."

And for everybody except point guard Antonio Barton, who played in the tournament in each of his three years at Memphis, it's essentially their first NCAA tournament. That includes Martin, who missed it all three years of his tenure at Missouri State and his first two in Knoxville.

"It's important for everybody," McRae said. "I'm really happy for Coach Martin. The work he's put in over the years, we should've been in the tournament more than once, but I mean, it's happening now, and I think it's great it's happening now because we're playing our best basketball of the year."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.