We start the way we always do with these conversations: Tennessee hasn't won a tournament of any kind since the 2000 Rainbow Classic. Tennessee hasn't won the SEC Tournament since 1979, has never won the postseason NIT, and of course, we've never been to the Final Four.
In the last ten years the Vols have played in the Great Alaska Shootout ('01), Maui Invitational ('04, returning next year), Legends Classic ('07), Old Spice Classic ('08), and Paradise Jam ('09), and come up empty every time. The last three Novembers, the Vols have made it to the finals in each tournament, only to lose to #15 Texas, #9 Gonzaga, and #6 Purdue.
The Vols also played in the Preseason NIT in 2006, making it to New York before getting embarrassed by Butler (before Butler was cool) and North Carolina by a combined 26 points. The road back to Madison Square Garden goes through Knoxville, where the Vols need wins on Tuesday and Wednesday night to advance to New York.
The big fish in this year's field is #6 Villanova; things didn't work out as well as the selection committee probably hoped, as the #23 Vols are the only other ranked team in the field, with UCLA receiving votes and Wake Forest receiving none. It may be November, but there are implications for March if the Vols can get to the finals and see Villanova there; just playing those guys would be a nice boost for our strength of schedule.
There's plenty of work to be done before then though - while Nova, Wake, and UCLA host their own regions this week, here's what the Vols will have to go through to get to New York City:
Belmont - 19-12, 3rd Atlantic Sun
The Bruins were upset in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Sun Tournament last year, which kept them out of postseason play for the first time since 2005; Belmont won the Atlantic Sun Tournament from 2006-2008, a run capped off by a near miss against Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and played in the CIT Tournament in 2009.
This team gave the Vols all they wanted in December 2008, losing by one point in Thompson-Boling. That group was led by five seniors, which accounts for Belmont's drop in play last year. But four starters are back from the '09-'10 group, and the mainstay with this bunch is three-point shooting. It's not quite as crazy as 2008 & 2009, when the Bruins launched 29 threes per game on average, but last year's team still took 23 per night, and this program consistently hits in the neighborhood of 35% of them.
Belmont's present and future are on the shoulders of Ian Clark, the reigning Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year after posting 14.9 points per game last season. Clark is a 40.2% three point shooter who hit 4+ threes in a game seven times last year, including a Loftonesque 9 of 11 performance against North Florida. He's only 6'3", so the Vols may try and bother him with length by putting Scotty Hopson on him.
Joining Clark in the backcourt are senior Jordan Campbell (who shoots 38.2% from three) and point guard Drew Hanlen, who led the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio. This is a team that doesn't like to make mistakes and lives to hit the three - if they're hot on Tuesday night, Tennessee is going to be in for a fight. Inside, the Bruins will go with 6'9" Mick Hedgepeth (11.6 pts 6.5 rebs last year) and 6'10" Scott Saunders, a transfer from Rice. So it's not like Tennessee will be flat out bigger than them either.
You take this team lightly at your own risk, and this won't the the only time we see them this year. If the Vols want to get to New York, they'll have to start by beating a potentially dangerous in-state foe that will be eager to take down their bigger brothers.
Missouri State - 24-12, 7th Missouri Valley, CIT Tournament Champions
Unlike the Vols, this team has recent experience winning a tournament, and though the teams they beat to do it (MTSU, Louisiana Tech, Creighton, Pacific) may not be very impressive, their regular season body of work last year included a win over Auburn, an overtime loss at Arkansas, a Bracket Busters win over Nevada, and a one point loss to the Northern Iowa team that upset Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.
Unlike Belmont, Tuesday's game won't be their season opener - Missouri State beat Oral Roberts 78-61 last week. All five starters were in double figures, and the Bears shot 43.8% from three, hitting 7 of 16 attempts. The backcourt of Jermaine Mallett, Nafis Ricks, and Adam Leonard each played more than 33 minutes. Other than the Vols, this is, on paper, the best team in this region.
History lesson: John Ward's final call was the second round of the 1999 NCAA Tournament, where the 4 seed Vols were destroyed by 13 seed Missouri State (Southwest Missouri State back then) by a stunning 30 points. We owe them.
Arkansas State - 17-14, 2nd Sun Belt West Division
John Brady, one of our old favorites, will make his return to Thompson-Boling Arena when the Red Wolves take on Missouri State Tuesday night. Arkansas State opened at Ole Miss, and they also proved that this entire region is full of teams that can't be taken lightly: they had an eight point halftime lead on the Rebels last week, a lead they held until the final five minutes of the game before losing 68-60. Forward Martavis Adams lead the team in scoring (14) and rebounding (8), they simply had no final answer for Chris Warren, who scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half. The Red Wolves shot only 18.8% from three, and still could've won the game.
Point being, all of these teams are dangerous, and if you assume New York, you assume too much. The Vols will have to cool off Belmont before facing a team that won't be intimiated and will know they can play with the big boys. For a young Vol squad we've already seen display immaturity in an exhibition loss, it'll take a solid effort on back-to-back nights to get the job done. If this team wants to be good enough to deserve a shot at Villanova and the big boys in New York, they'll have to prove it by handling some tough business in Knoxville this week.