Welcome to the NIT, which -- at least for one game -- stood for "Not Interested Tonight" for the Tennessee Volunteers.
Thankfully, the Vols were lucid enough for long enough to get past waaaaaay overmatched MEAC foe Savannah State 65-51 in the first round at Thompson-Boling Arena on a night when star forward Jeronne Maymon didn't play because of a tweaked knee and the rowdy crowd's feistiness was matched only by Skylar McBee's.
Shaking off Maymon's injury, UT raced out of the locker room scoring the game's first 10 points and built a 26-9 lead before going on one of those offensive lulls that hearkened back to the December days that kept coach Cuonzo Martin's team from the Big Dance. The problem was the Vols couldn't seem to shake the slumber. Despite an atmosphere at the Tommy Bowl that sounded loud -- at least between the mindless droning of the ESPNU announcers -- thanks to an everyman crowd that took advantage of the $10 general admission seating, the Vols played largely uninspired, with the exception of a few fiery moments.
It wasn't that they didn't play hard. They just didn't play particularly smart, and playing smart has become a characteristic of Martin's team this season. Even without Maymon, the Vols had a distinct size and talent advantage inside, yet refused to seize advantage. Additionally, too many poor shots early in the shot clock led to far too many wasted possessions. It was like the Ole Miss game -- without the Rebels' talent or menacing zone. Tonight, it was Tennessee hurting Tennessee, not the opponent.
From a statistical standpoint, the numbers weren't dreadful: UT regrouped to shoot 42 percent and only turned it over 12 times. Four players scored double-digit points, and McBee added nine. There was never really a worrisome moment, even when the Tigers pulled within four in the second half, perhaps because UT's defense was predictably stifling. Savannah State mustered just 32.8 percent shooting and became UT's 10th victim who failed to reach 60 points. The Vols just seemed discombobulated on offense.
If I sound like I'm playing a little, orange violin, though, I'm not. There were multiple highlights, too. UT won the game with a freshman frenzy that featured a 13-point performance from Jarnell Stokes and a stellar effort in his first career start by Yemi Mananjuola, who added 10 points and eight rebounds. Josh Richardson also scored 10 as Vols freshmen scored 33 points -- a season-high. With freshman flurries, though come freshman inconsistency, and there was plenty of it.
It's hard to be terribly disappointed with a postseason win for a team that overachieved for much of the season, but UT has invited these expectations itself. And performing this way against Middle Tennessee State or Marshall may not provide the same favorable outcome.
Credit Savannah State, playing its first televised postseason game in school history. They just kept pestering the Vols, who did enough wrong to help them stay in the game. Rashad Hassan made UT pay for Maymon's absence, scoring 20 points and pulling down 14 rebounds in a game where the overmatched Tigers were only out-rebounded 42-41. The Vols couldn't pull away, and Hassan was a big reason for that.
But with the gap closing and the game on the line, McBee sank an open 3-pointer from the top of the key, which ignited an 8-0 run that put UT back ahead by 10 with around 10 minutes to play, and the Vols never faltered down the stretch.
McBee also riled up the crowd late in the game in a mustache-ruffling moment. After being whistled for an obvious flagrant-one foul early in the game, grabbing a Tiger who was breaking away for an easy bucket, McBee again found himself in the fray. This time, he reached in and tied up a jumpball with Preston Blackmon, who took offense -- and ultimately took a half-hearted swing at McBee. Though replays clearly showed Blackmon reacted out of frustration, probably at McBee's pestering as well as the out-of-reach deficit on the scoreboard, the officials called no foul* on the two players to a chorus of disbelieving boos.
Still, McBee's rowdy run-in was a welcome sign of life on a night when the Vols flat-lined through large swaths of the game. Whether that was because the team was a bit disappointed in itself for not seizing the SEC tournament opportunity against Ole Miss, disappointed in the committee for not putting them in the NCAA tourney based off their body of work with Stokes in the lineup or just simply thought they could sleepwalk and still win, I'm not sure. But the bottom line is UT survived by a decent margin and lives to play at home another day.
Now, we'll wait to hear word on Maymon, when and if we can expect him back [best guess here is he was sitting tonight because he could and we'll see him when we need him] and prepare for the next opponent and try to end this season with a win -- something you rarely get to do if you make the postseason.
The Vols may not have been totally interested tonight, but they were interested enough to win. They weren't really good, but they were good enough. And that'll have to do tonight.
*edited to reflect actual call