Despite 12 losses and an exit in the semifinals of the SEC tournament to eventual champs, and No. 1 overall seed the Florida Gators, the Tennessee basketball team will make their first NCAA tournament appearance in three years.
Since the departure of Bruce Pearl the Vols have been forced to accept back-to-back NIT bids, neither of which they were able to make their way past the second round despite No. 1 seeds and homecourt advantage.
While it’s only the second tournament appearance for Vols’ seniors Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon, it’s just the first for Cuonzo Martin since becoming a head coach.
After six years of being a head coach, three at Missouri State and three at Tennessee, Martin will make his first tournament appearance since his days as an assistant at Purdue under mentor Gene Keady. While at Purdue Martin was apart of three second round appearances, and one appearance in the elite eight, so while he’s no stranger to tournament success in the past it’s still been four years since a team he coached actually won a tournament (2010 CIT champions), whether it was in-season, post-season, or conference.
While the Vols may have been ecstatic to see their name pop up on the screen during the Selection Sunday show, the road ahead may be the most difficult of any region not only this season, but in quite some time.
Before moving into the brunt of their region they must face an Iowa team in a play-in game that ranks 10th in the nation in points per game with 82. Although the Hawkeyes have lost their last three games, six of their last seven including a first round exit in the Big Ten tournament, they’re still a team that could go far in the tournament if given the chance. In fact, only two of their 12 losses have come from non-conference play and only one Big Ten opposition, Michigan, even exists in the Midwest bracket.
If Tennessee can escape Iowa it will be a 24-8 UMass team that will await them in the second round. Past that the Vols could face up to four previous opponents in the NCAA tournament solely in their region alone. Included with the Vols in the Midwest region are undefeated Wichita State, North Carolina State, Xavier, and Kentucky. Overall Tennessee finished 1-4 against the four throughout the regular season.
The Midwest region also includes American conference champions Louisville, ACC and Big Ten runner-ups Duke and Michigan, Atlantic 10 regular season champs Saint Louis, as well as Mercer who eliminated the Vols from the NCAA tournament a season ago.
While there is definitely a tough road ahead, Tennessee’s first NCAA tournament expedition under third-year coach Martin will begin Wednesday night at 9:10 p.m. on TruTv when they face Iowa in Dayton, Ohio.