Members of the Tennessee basketball team are experiencing March Madness in their own way this spring: It's March and they're mad.
Snubbed by the NCAA Tournament's selection committee, several Vols are making little effort to mask their anger as they prepare for Wednesday night's game with visiting Mercer in Round 1 of the National Invitation Tournament.
"You're not going to stop being upset," junior wing Jordan McRae said. "I'm still mad about it, and I'm going to be mad about it for a while."
He sees the same frustration in his Vol teammates, noting: "Everybody's still upset about it. You can still see it on guys' faces."
Senior center Kenny Hall certainly qualifies. When asked if the NIT at least gives the Vols a chance to prove something, he frowned.
"As far as proving anything, I don't think we have anything to prove," he said. "Whatever we do, it's not going to get us into the NCAA Tournament, so we have nothing to prove."
Many teams who barely miss the NCAA Tournament field can't handle the disappointment. They go through the motions in the NIT, and their lack of enthusiasm results in poor performances. The Vols appear ripe for such a letdown, despite their assurances to the contrary.
"We've got more games," McRae said. "As long as you're a ball player, you're going to love the game no matter what the tournament is. As long as you've got an opponent and referees, you've got to be ready to play."
Tennessee also was an unsuccessful bubble team at 18-14 last March. The snub wasn't nearly so painful on that occasion, however.
"We weren't really thinking about it last year," McRae said. "Being real close — sitting down and watching (the bracket announcement) — to really think you're going to get in and not get in is really upsetting.... Coach (Cuonzo) Martin was really confident about it, which made us confident."
Apparently, the final spot in this year's 68-team field came down to Tennessee (20-12) and Middle Tennessee (28-5). Although the Blue Raiders have more wins and a better RPI (28 versus 58), Tennessee has huge advantages in terms of schedule strength (51 versus 135) and wins versus top-100 teams (9 versus 1). It appears the Blue Raiders were the last team in the field and the Vols the first team out. The fact Tennessee may have come closer to an NCAA bid than anyone in college hoops without getting one makes the snub even more gut-wrenching.
Everybody's upset," McRae said. "But we've got more games to play, so it is what it is."
Appearances to the contrary, the Vols say they'll push through their frustration by playing with intensity and focus in Wednesday's NIT opener.
"We're basketball players, and this is a basketball game being played," Hall said. "We're competitors, so we still have to go out there and compete. We're still playing in TBA, so we've still got to protect our home. We still love the game of basketball, so we're still going to come out here and play with passion."
McRae echoed those sentiments.
"We're playing to win," he said. "Any time there's games, we're going to be ready to play. We've got to do all we can to win these games. There's no sense in making matters worse by going out Wednesday and losing this first game."