The ball stops dribbling for every basketball player eventually. Tennessee seniors Kenny Hall and Skylar McBee just hope it doesn't stop for them tonight.
With the Vols passed over by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, some of the younger players may be looking past this evening's NIT opener against Mercer and thinking "Wait till next year."
Hall and McBee don't have that luxury. There is no "next year" for them. If Tennessee loses tonight, there isn't even a "next game" for them. That gives them an increased sense of urgency about tonight's game.
"I would think so," Hall said. "That would be the case, regardless of whether we're in the NCAA or the NIT. There's definitely a sense of urgency there."
Asked if he feels motivated to prolong his career by winning tonight, Hall nodded and replied: "I probably do, for the fact I'm a senior and these are my last games."
Tennessee won six consecutive games in February. If the Vols can win five straight now they'll be 2013 NIT champions.
"I'm excited to keep playing and the chance to get a championship," the low-key Hall conceded. "I'm excited for that."
Making sure his younger teammates are equally excited will be no small challenge. Still, Hall vows to "stay in guys' ears, try to keep them motivated, keep them ready."
Whereas the 6-foot-9 Hall came to Tennessee in 2009 from Stone Mountain, Ga., as a four-star recruit rated the No. 11 power forward prospect in America, the 6-foot-3 McBee arrived on The Hill as a two-star walk-on from Rutledge. He eventually earned a scholarship and wound up starting 28 games.
Like Hall, McBee understands that Tennessee's next loss will signal the end of his career. He believes his youthful teammates will be focused enough for the Vols to prevail tonight, so he can play another day.
"I think we're going to go out there and try to play the best we can," McBee said. "We're playing good basketball right now. Whoever we play — Mercer or the next team — we're going out there and we're going to compete."
Should Tennessee win three games, it will advance to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City. That should be an attractive incentive.
"I think it would be great," McBee said. "Me and Kenny have played there before (beating Virginia Commonwealth and Villanova in the 2010 NIT Season Tip-Off). It's a great experience to get to go to New York. Hopefully, it'll be a good experience for some of these younger guys if we can make it there. We're looking to win games and, hopefully, do that."
Asked if the thought of ending his career at Madison Square Garden intrigues him, Hall shrugged.
"It doesn't matter where I end it, like Madison Square Garden," he said. "The chance I have to end it as a champion — whether it's the NCAA or the NIT — that's motivation. I don't really care about playing in the Garden. I done played there."
Asked if he will talk to his younger teammates about the value of claiming the NIT title, Hall nodded.
"Definitely," he said. "I would just stress to these guys that there's still a chance for us to win something. If it's not the NCAA, at least go out being some kind of champion."
McBee agreed wholeheartedly, noting: "I think that's what our goal is now: We're competing in the NIT. That's what we're going to try to do -- get to New York and win.
Asked if winning the NIT would provide some vindication for not making the NCAA field, McBee paused thoughtfully.
"I don't know that I'd say vindication," he said, "but we're looking to prove we're a very good basketball team. Every time we step on the floor we're trying to do that. We're going to give it our best and try to make it to New York."
Whether the Vols can regroup and make it to New York is debatable. This much is not: A loss tonight means the dribbling stops for Kenny Hall and Skylar McBee. The latter already has given the matter some thought.
"I don' think it's one game, and then it ends," McBee said. "You know there's a time when you're going to stop playing, and I think you prepare for that before the last game."
GAME NOTES: Tennessee brings a 20-12 record into tonight's game. Mercer is 23-11.... The Bears' Bob Hoffman was voted Atlantic Sun Coach of the Year after guiding his team to the league's regular-season title.... Mercer allows just 58.2 points per game.... The teams last met on Dec. 28, 1993, when Wade Houston's final Big Orange squad prevailed 67-45 at Thompson-Boling Arena. It was one of just five wins the 1993-94 Vols posted in a 5-22 disaster that cost Houston his job.... Current Vol head man Cuonzo Martin is 2-2 in NIT games. He guided his 2011 Missouri State squad to a first-round victory before losing 82-71 to Miami in Round 2. He guided his 2012 Vols to a first-round defeat of Savannah State before losing 71-64 to Middle Tennessee in Round 2.... Tonight's game tips off at 8:00 with coverage provided by ESPNU.