NEW ORLEANS — As the opening round of the 2012 Southeastern Conference basketball tournament unfolded Thursday, second-seeded Tennessee was nowhere to be found.
New Orleans Arena hosted four games. The Vols didn’t play in any of them.
Instead, coach Cuonzo Martin and his team put in their work about 20 minutes north of the arena, on the opposite side of town, where the city is bordered by Lake Pontchartrain. Inside the gym of Holy Cross School, a 5th-through-12th grade private institution, the Vols didn’t sound like a team with a No. 2 bid.
“We ain’t won nothing yet,” said Jeronne Maymon.
“That No. 2 means absolutely nothing,” said Cameron Tatum.
“People are looking at us like underdogs,” said Skylar McBee.
Despite going 10-6 in conference play — including a sweep of Florida, a win over Vanderbilt and a near-upset of Kentucky’s SEC all-star team — Tennessee is easily overlooked in New Orleans.
In appearance, the Vols are still the team that was picked to finish 11th in the league. No player was named to the postseason All-SEC first team. At no point did the team sniff a spot in the top 25 poll. They’re a nice story, and folks are impressed with the job Martin has done, but they simply don’t feel like a No. 2 seed.
Nevertheless, with that number next to the name, Tennessee will take the floor in Friday’s SEC semifinal against seventh-seeded Ole Miss. The Rebels, who the Vols beat 73-60 in Knoxville on Feb. 22, got past 10th-seeded Auburn on Thursday.
In most other years, the SEC’s runner-up would likely be favored in the quarterfinals and semifinals and, more importantly, be a damn-near lock for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament.
Except, this isn’t any other year, and Tennessee is not the quintessential No. 2 seed. The Vols are expected to beat Ole Miss on Friday, but plenty will be picking Vanderbilt to oust UT in Saturday afternoon’s semifinal. Cue Rodney Dangerfield and Aretha Franklin.
Now regarding that NCAA bid, third-seeded Vandy expects to hear its name called on Selection Sunday regardless of this weekend's outcome. As for second-seeded Tennessee ...
“We’re the underdog right now,” Tatum said. “We’re still not picked to make the NCAA tournament.”
Tatum understands what it’s like to go to the SEC tournament with an NCAA bid in the bag. Every bounce of the ball doesn’t dictate the postseason destination. Every missed shot doesn’t bring the stench of the NIT wafting through the gym. During their rise from the SEC cellar, the Vols played like had nothing to lose. But now that’s no longer the case.
They have everything to lose.
“A lot of guys might play better with their backs against the wall,” said Tatum, a member of Tennessee’s three previous NCAA tournament teams. “It’s an interesting challenge to see what we’re made of.”
Martin and Co. knows that a quarterfinal loss to Ole Miss on Friday relegates them immediately to the NIT. Don’t even bother turning on CBS on Sunday. Just wait for a call from the folks in Indianapolis saying which NIT team is coming to Thompson-Boling Arena.
Pressure — that’s something Tennessee hasn’t faced this year. Adversity? Yes. Pressure? No. In the first post-Bruce Pearl season, losses were expected and wins were a bonus.
That’s no longer the case. Friday’s game will reveal how the Vols are coping with this new found tension. When all the “bubble talk” first began to emerge following four straight early February wins, Tennessee face-planted in a 12-point loss at Alabama. That was a mere three weeks ago.
“I’d like to think the guys are loose and ready to go, but I’m not in their shoes, I’m not out there playing the games,” Martin said cautiously Thursday.
Last weekend’s regular-season finale win over Vanderbilt was encouraging, though. In that instance, the Vols answered the bell and did so with confidence and moxie. Now it’s time to do it again — for three straight days.
Listening to the players talk Thursday, it’s clear they’re looking to answer those overlooking their No. 2 seeding with the same defiance used to refute the preseason’s 11th-place prediction.
“We’ve got that chip on our shoulder,” Maymon said. “People look at us like we’re not supposed to be No. 2. Well, we’ll just have to prove them wrong.”
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