"That's a lot of motivation," rising sophomore Josh Richardson said recently. "We know we could've beaten some teams that were in it. We weren't hating on anybody or anything — we were glad the SEC teams got to where they did, and we were pulling for 'em — but we know we can play them, and that's extra motivation for this year."
Rising senior Skylar McBee added a hearty amen to that. Watching the NCAA Tournament after playing in it in 2010 and 2011 was difficult.
"It was definitely motivating," McBee said. "We were all disappointed that we didn't get in but we're just looking forward to next year. Of course, there's a disappointment there, but I think that also drives us to push harder this summer to make sure we get there next year."
Redshirt freshman Quinton Chievous said the fact a couple of SEC teams fared so well in The Dance made watching the tournament games even more unpleasant.
National champ Kentucky is losing all five starters from its 2011-12 team. So is Vanderbilt, which tied Tennessee and Florida for second place in the SEC last season. The Gators are losing guards Bradley Beal and Erving Walker from their Elite Eight squad.
"The SEC is losing a lot of players in a lot of places," Chievous said, "and I feel like we'll be one of the top teams next year."
Head coach Cuonzo Martin concedes that qualifying for March Madness is Tennessee's No. 1 priority in the season ahead.
"Oh, yeah. That's understood," he said. "A lot of things we don't talk about; we let our actions speak for themselves. I think we have the caliber of team to work toward it; we don't have to talk about it all the time. We set personal goals as a team and we work toward those goals."
Martin saw the disappointment in his players' faces when they were snubbed by the NCAA Selection Committee last March. Still, he believes the news would've been harder to take if they had projected to be an NCAA Tournament team when the 2011-12 season began, instead of being pegged 11th among the 12 SEC teams in preseason polls.
"I think in this case it was a little bit different because I don't know if our guys expected to make it in the beginning," he said.
The Vols' chances of qualifying for March Madness went from bad to worse as they staggered to a 10-12 start. Winning eight of the final nine regular-season games, however, put Tennessee on the NCAA bubble and got Big Orange players excited.
As Martin noted: "Down the stretch all of a sudden it's 'Oh, man, we can do this.'"
A second-round loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament relegated Tennessee to the 2012 National Invitation Tournament. With four starters returning from a squad that went 19-15 in 2011-12, however, the Big Orange projects to be a strong contender for an NCAA Tournament bid in the season ahead.
"Next season you go into the season expecting it, and it's different," Martin said. "I don't think we as a team (last winter) expected we could be a great NCAA Tournament team. Once we understood the level we had to play at it was probably a little bit too late."