The Tennessee Vols insist they are excited about playing Savannah State in tonight's opening round of the National Invitation Tournament. The question is: Are Big Orange fans excited?
If 21,000-seat Thompson-Boling Arena is three-quarters full and rocking, the crowd support should help push the Vols to victory. Conversely, if TBA is three-quarters empty, Tennessee may well finish the 2011-12 season with a humbling loss.
Big Orange fans were a tremendous asset in the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt, spurring the Vols to a 68-61 defeat of a clearly superior Commodore squad. Tennessee's players expect the same kind of support tonight against Savannah State.
"I think it's a big advantage," junior wing Skylar McBee said. "We've been playing really well at home, and I look for that to keep up. I guarantee we'll have a good crowd here for the NIT."
After losing back-to-back home games to Pitt and Austin Peay in December, Tennessee won 12 of 13 remaining home games. The only loss during that stretch was to top-ranked Kentucky by a scant 65-62 margin. Clearly, the Vols are tough to beat on their court.
"Playing at home is always a plus," sophomore wing Jordan McRae said. "It feels good knowing we're playing in front of our fans."
All teams elevate their play at home but the Vols are dramatically better at home than on the road. Asked why, McRae replied: "Our crowd just brings great energy to the table. And, of course, playing in front of your home crowd, you always have to play good."
As a No. 1 seed for the NIT, Tennessee will play its first-round, second-round and third-round games at home if it keeps winning. That brings a smile to the face of sophomore point guard Trae Golden.
"It's great," he said. "We love playing at home. We play really well at home. Any chance you get to play at home is definitely a plus, and we're going to take full advantage."
Senior wing Cameron Tatum thinks playing in Thompson-Boling Arena will be a major plus for Tennessee tonight versus Savannah State.
"I think it's very important," he said. "There's nothing like home cooking, the home crowd you get cheering you on, especially when a tough team like Savannah State's coming in. Hopefully, guys will feed off our crowd's energy."
Tonight may seem a little anticlimactic for Tatum. Saluted at "Senior Day" 11 days ago, he played one of his best games ever in the upset of Vanderbilt, then emotionally kissed the midcourt logo at the conclusion of what he thought would be his final home appearance. Taking the floor again may feel weird but he says he'll deal with it.
"I'm just happy that we're getting to play some type of postseason," he said. "And playing at Thompson-Boling is a good feeling."
It will be an even better feeling if Thompson-Boling is packed and noisy. Otherwise, Savannah State's Tigers could make like Austin Peay and shock the Big Orange on its home floor.
"This is their chance to really shine —
playing a big school on ESPN — so they're going to come out and play hard against us," McRae noted. "Any team can play at this level, especially in Div. I. We showed that this year by losing to some of the teams we lost to."
NOTES: McRae grew up in Midway, Ga., roughly 30 minutes from the Savannah State campus but said, "I never got offered from there. They didn't really call." ... Tennessee brings an 18-14 record into tonight's game. Savannah State is 21-11.... The Vols have won eight of their last 10 games but are the second-hottest team heading into tonight's game. The Tigers won their final 13 games to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season title at 14-2. After a first-round bye in the MEAC Tournament, however, Savannah State was upset by eighth-seeded Hampton 59-46.... The Tigers' leading scorers are Rashad Hassan (12.8 points per game), Deric Rudolph (11.0 ppg) and Arnold Louis (9.6 ppg). Rudolph leads the MEAC in 3-point baskets, averaging 3.1 per game. Louis leads the Tigers in rebounding at 7.9 per game.... Savannah State head man Horace Broadnax was voted MEAC Coach of the Year for 2011-12. He won the award twice previously while head man at Bethune-Cookman.... There is no reserved seating for tonight's game. All adult tickets are general admission at a cost of $10 each. The first 500 students will be admitted free, with the rest charged $4 per ticket.... Tonight's game will be televised by ESPNU with an 8 o'clock tipoff.