The road to redemption starts Wednesday at Thompson-Boling Arena, when the second-seeded Vols host seventh-seeded Mercer. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. with television coverage provided by ESPNU.
Head coach Cuonzo Martin and several Vols thought they had secured an NCAA Tournament bid by beating Missouri in the regular-season finale and felt they solidified their status by beating Mississippi State in their SEC Tournament opener. Not making The Dance was a bitter pill to swallow.
"It's unfortunate," Martin said Sunday night. "We've got to get back to work, get ready to play in the NIT."
Mike Bobinski, chair of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, said on national TV that Tennessee was omitted because the Vols "honestly didn't beat a lot of very powerful teams" during the 9-2 stretch run that preceded Selection Sunday.
Martin took a little dig at Bobinski when asked about the comment, noting: "We beat Mizzou, Florida, Kentucky and LSU, who were top-100 teams. I'd like to think he did his homework but you never know."
Martin was not happy that SEC Tournament champ Ole Miss, regular-season champ Florida and Missouri were the only league teams to get bids to the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.
"I don't know that the SEC gets the respect it deserves when it comes to basketball," Martin said. "It's just very sad, and that's something we've got to address as a league because that just shouldn't happen."
Given the level of disappointment among Tennessee's players, getting them up for the NIT will be a chore.
"That's easier said than done," Martin conceded. "You've got to get emotionally ready ... get off that roller-coaster, so to speak. It didn't happen the way we wanted it to, so we need to get ready to play."
Can the disappointed Vols get ready to play by Wednesday night?
"We don't have a choice," Martin said, "because you've got to play the game."
All tickets to Wednesday night's game are general admission and cost $10.
Mercer went 23-11 en route to winning the Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season championship. An 88-75 loss to Florida Gulf Coast in the title game of the league tournament (held in Macon) cost the Bears an NCAA Tournament bid. The 88 points were the most surrendered by Mercer all season.
The Vols (20-12) and Bears have played three common opponents this season. Tennessee beat Kennesaw State 76-67 in its opener on Nov. 9. Mercer lost to Kennesaw 83-75 Jan. 5 on the road but avenged the loss with a 66-42 home-floor romp Feb. 1 in Macon.
Tennessee went 1-2 in three meetings with Alabama -- losing 68-65 Jan. 12 in Tuscaloosa, winning 54-53 Jan. 26 in Knoxville, then losing 58-48 Friday in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals at Nashville. Mercer beat Bama 66-59 Dec. 22 in Tuscaloosa.
Tennessee lost twice to Georgia, falling 68-62 Feb. 6 in Knoxville and 78-68 March 2 in Athens. Kennesaw lost to the Bulldogs 58-49 Dec. 18 in Athens.
Counting its win at Tuscaloosa, Mercer was 8-7 in road games this season.
The Bears' top players are Travis Smith and Langston Hall. Smith averaged 13.5 points per game and shot a sizzling 42.1 percent from 3-point range. Hall averaged 11 points per game and shot 34.7 percent from beyond the arc.
As a team Mercer made 43.3 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from 3-point range this season. The Bears outrebounded their foes by an average margin of 32.3 to 31.9 per game.
Tennessee and Mercer last played in 1993, with the Vols winning, 67-45. Mercer won the three previous meetings, all played between 1913 and 1924.
The winner of Wednesday's Tennessee-Mercer game will advance to second-round NIT play March 21-25. The opponent will be the winner between third seed Brigham Young (21-11) and sixth seed Washington (18-15). Because of scheduling conflicts at Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee will play its second-round game on the road should it win Wednesday night.
The Big Orange stands 13-12 all-time in NIT play. The Vols were a No. 1 seed in the tournament last March, beating Savannah State in Round 1 before losing to Middle Tennessee in Round 2.
General admission tickets are on sale now. Tennessee's administration encourages fans to purchase online and use the "print at home" delivery method to avoid lines at the Will Call window.
Phones sales begin at 8:30 Monday morning by calling (865) 656-1200 or 1-800-332-8657. Fans can purchase tickets at the Thompson-Boling Arena Ticket Office beginning Monday at 8:30 a.m. Parking passes that were issued for the regular-season games will not be valid for any NIT games.