"The NIT isn't fun," junior post Jarnell Stokes said following today's workout at Thompson-Boling Arena. "As we practiced today, we pictured how it was last year when we saw those NIT balls in our gym. Guys were mad, ready to fight each other. It was very ugly."
There was nothing ugly about the practice-floor mood on the Monday following Selection Sunday this year. The Vols are happy to be part of college basketball's premier event, even though making the field as one of the "last four in" put a small chip on their shoulders.
"Yeah, it does," senior wing Jordan McRae said. "But at the same time everybody's really thrilled to be in. We're looking at it as: Win this game and get our feet wet…. It means everything. I'm just happy for the whole team."
Stokes echoed those thoughts, noting: "We're very happy today. We're actually fighting for something meaningful."
Watching the Selection Sunday Show on TV at the home of head coach Cuonzo Martin was incredibly stressful for Tennessee's players and coaches. Each time a bubble team was announced as being in the field, the Vols' saw their hopes of getting off the bubble dwindle.
"It was kind of nervous," Stokes said. "I saw some teams get in that I didn't think would, so I was somewhat thinking they would take our spot. I'm just glad to be able to play, no matter who we're playing against."
When Tennessee's name was called two-thirds of the way through the Selection Sunday Show, the Vols finally felt the tension break.
"Everybody was excited," junior wing Josh Richardson said. "We've got a chance to win the national championship right now. How could you not be excited?"
So, what was Martin's reaction?
"I wasn't looking at him; I was a couple of rows in front of him," Richardson said. "I just remember as we were all walking out of the house he was excited and shaking everybody's hands. It was fun."
"Everybody was clapping and smiling," senior point guard Antonio Barton said. "You could just feel the happiness in the atmosphere. We're just so happy to be here right now."
No wonder. After digging themselves a hole with some awful performances in November, December, January and February, the Vols spent March clawing their way out. Winning five of their last six games – the only loss coming to top-ranked Florida – proved just enough to get them a bid to The Dance.
"I think what you saw at the end of the year is a bunch of guys that are very hungry," Stokes said. "It's guys that have been to the NIT before and realized, ‘Man, this is our last chance (for the NCAA) and we want the seniors to go out with a bang.'"
Comparing the NCAA Tournament to the NIT is truly an apples-to-oranges proposition. McRae inadvertently summed it up best when asked why guard play is considered so vital in March.
"I've never played in March," he said, "so I wouldn't know."
Actually, he played in March of 2012 and March of 2013. Clearly, he considers those two NIT experiences meaningless.
McRae apparently considers the cameo appearance he made as a Vol freshman in the 2011 NCAA Tournament meaningless, as well.
"We got beat by 30 (75-45 versus Michigan)," he said, "and they didn't shoot a free throw the whole game. I wouldn't tell my kids about that."
Senior post Jeronne Maymon, the only other holdover from the Vols' 2011 NCAA Tournament team, has slightly fonder memories of that game.
"I played the last minute and some change," he said, smiling as he added: "They whupped us but I was just happy to be out there."
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