Tennessee Vols hope to extend thrill in NCAA tournament (with downloadable bracket)

Tennessee Vols hope to extend thrill in NCAA tournament (with downloadable bracket)

March 19th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee guard Jordan McRae dunks during practice.

Tennessee guard Jordan McRae dunks during practice.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Document: 2014 NCAA Men's Bracket

Bracket for the 2014 NCAA Men?s Division I Basketball Championship

DAYTON, Ohio - The bus carrying Tennessee's basketball team arrived at the Marriott hotel here shortly before 10 on Monday night.

Shortly after their arrival, the feeling of being in the NCAA tournament hit the Volunteers.

The feeling was furthered Tuesday afternoon, when they spent a little more than an hour at the University of Dayton Arena, saw the patented tournament floor and all the blue circular NCAA logos, attended the news conferences and practiced.

Now it's up to them to make the feelings last.

"It hit me when we got to the hotel room and we were able to see some of the things people go through when they get to the tournament, something I personally never experienced," Vols All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes said.

"But we realize we have unfinished business. I don't want to get hit too hard, I guess."

Tennessee, playing in its first NCAA tournament since 2011, faces Iowa tonight in a "First Four" game for the chance to play sixth-seeded Massaschusetts on Friday afternoon in Raleigh, N.C. Iowa is in its first NCAA tournament since losing as a No. 3 seed to 14th-seeded Northwestern State on a buzzer-beater in 2006.

"It's definitely something new," Tennessee leading scorer Jordan McRae said. "Everybody's record is like 0-0. Sixty-eight teams right now are trying to do the same thing."

Though Tennessee (21-12) and Iowa (20-12) have played each other just three times and last met in 2000, the two teams are a little bit familiar with each other from the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament last November.

The Vols and Hawkeyes were on the same side of the bracket in the preseason tournament in the Bahamas, and after Iowa beat Xavier -- whichg split two games with Tennessee and played in Dayton on Tuesday night -- in its opening game, Tennessee was upset by Texas-El Paso.

The Hawkeyes went on to hammer the Miners by 36 points and lost in overtime to Villanova, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, while the Vols recovered and cruised to double-digit wins against Xavier and Wake Forest.

"They're probably better than they were in the Bahamas," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "That was a new team. They probably played four or five games before they got to the Bahamas, probably not the best opponents. They played well in the Bahamas, then went through the grind of a Big Ten season.

"I think they're a better team because any time you go in a league of that level in 18 games ... it's tough, so you learn a lot. You see a lot. You've got some great coaching in the league and some very talented players. I think in a lot of cases they're probably better than what they were."

The Hawkeyes didn't finish that way, though.

Picked to finish fifth behind Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten's preseason poll, Iowa finished sixth after losing five of its last six games, including four games to teams not in the NCAA tournament.

Similar to Tennessee, the preseason expectations were high for Iowa, and the finish to Fran McCaffery's fourth season as coach probably was souring.

"I think there was so much emphasis put on this team's ability to get here, to get into the NCAA tournament in terms of progression [from] 18 wins two years ago, NIT bid, second-round departure, then 25 wins, NIT championship game," said the former Lehigh, UNC Greensboro and Siena coach. "The next step is you've got to go to the [NCAA] tournament.

"I think without question that was on their minds every time we took the floor, and I think it was helpful at times. Maybe it wasn't as helpful at times. But once you're here, you know then, 'OK, we all have an equal opportunity to win a national championship,' and it starts with the first game. Anybody that you play against is going to be really good.

While Iowa nearly slid out of the tournament, Tennessee, which was picked to finish third in the SEC and finished fourth, righted its up-and-down season at the end and surged into the NCAA tournament with five straight wire-to-wire wins, a streak snapped by top-ranked Florida in the SEC tournament semifinals.

"I don't think it stopped anything," Vols point guard Antonio Barton said. "We watched a lot of film on it. We made a couple of adjustments. I think it's more motivation on the bounceback after a loss. We've just got to come in and get the job done."

That would get the Vols a flight to another site with another game and another welcome.

"To walk in the hotel, to receive the fanfare that we did," Martin said, "it was great for our guys and our program."

An NCAA tournament victory tonight would be even better.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.