By Ben Frederickson
Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel
Cuonzo Martin joked that he invited his team to his house for Sunday’s NCAA tournament selection show as a precaution.
“That way, if I got bad news, I could fall in my bed,” the third-year Tennessee men’s basketball coach said.
Instead UT got good (enough) news when the 68-team bracket was revealed. The Vols satisfied their season-long goal and fulfilled an expectation UT athletic director Dave Hart announced publicly in November. They are back in the big dance for the first time since 2011 — barely.
The Vols (21-12) will play Iowa (20-12) in one of the tournament’s First Four games in Dayton, Ohio, at UD Arena.
“I thought we would probably have a better seed than the one we had, yes,” Martin said. “You’ve just got to keep rolling.”
The First Four games, which the NCAA refers to as its first round, are commonly called play-in games. Out of the 36 teams to receive at-large bids, the selection committee ranked the Vols 33rd.
If UT wins Wednesday, it advances to the tournament’s second round, becomes the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region and plays No. 6 seed Massachusetts (24-8) in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday afternoon. The winner of that game will play the Duke-Mercer winner on Sunday.
“They weren’t overjoyed, jumping around tearing up the furniture or anything,” Martin said of his players’ reaction. “But they were excited about it. OK. We’re in. Let’s get to rolling. Let’s do what we need to do to be successful. It’s business.”
There were moments this season where the Vols’ business trip appeared to be destined for the NIT. That undesirable option seemed almost certain after UT lost to Texas A&M for the second time on Feb. 22.
“I told our guys, continue to stay the course,” Martin said. “If you continue to do these things, it can happen. And it worked out.”
The Vols won five of their next six games, a streak that ended when they lost to top-ranked Florida in Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinal in Atlanta. Florida and Wichita State combined to total four of the Vols’ losses this season. The Gators and Shockers both received No. 1 seeds.
UT entered Selection Sunday ranked 41st in ESPN’s Daily RPI. Its strength of schedule ranked 11th in the country. The gold star on its resume was a 35-point home victory over Virginia on Dec. 30. The Cavaliers also earned a No. 1 seed.
Martin receives a $50,000 bonus for the NCAA tournament appearance. That will increase to $75,000 if the Vols advance to the Sweet 16. His 101st game as UT’s coach will be his first time coaching in the tournament.
“I’m happy,” he said. “But it’s a team game. Not necessarily me. Who knows how long I’ll be doing this. Ten years. Fifteen. Twenty. Who knows? I’m just excited for the program, the fans that were there through thick and thin.”
UT is 1-2 against Iowa all-time but beat the Hawkeyes 80-68 in the most recent meeting, which took place in Honolulu, Hawaii. Both participated in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, in late November. While they never played at the event, they shared common opponents: Xavier and UTEP. Iowa beat both Xavier (77-74 in overtime) and UTEP (89-53). UT lost to UTEP (78-70) but beat Xavier (64-49) to avenge a season-opening loss to the Musketeers.
As the Vols peaked at the season’s end, the Hawkeyes stumbled. They’ve lost six of their last seven.
“They probably felt like they were on the outside looking in,” Martin said. “All of a sudden they see their name called. We’ve got another season, guys. So it rejuvenates them. I think it’s a news season for everybody.”
This marks the Vols’ 20th trip to the NCAA tournament, where they have a 16-20 record and one trip to the Elite Eight (2010). While they are 0-2 in tournament games played in Dayton — they lost to Oklahoma State in 2009 and Charlotte in 2001 — this is their first play-in game.
It’s not exactly what Martin had in mind. But it’s a lot better than being left out.
“It’s the NCAA tournament,” he said. “That’s the most important thing. Whether it’s play-in, play-out, play in New York or California. You’re in. You’re excited to be playing.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball