KNOXVILLE -- The National Invitation Tournament stickers on the floor might suggest otherwise.
In Tennessee's minds, though, two NCAA tournament teams will take the Thompson-Boling Arena floor in the second round of the secondary tournament.
The Volunteers host 26-win Middle Tennessee State. A win over the Blue Raiders would put UT in Wednesday night's quarterfinal against the winner of tonight's game between Minnesota and Miami (FL). Two wins this week would put UT in New York City for the NIT semifinals.
The Vols know, however, that tonight won't be easy.
"MTSU's a really good team, and they're going to come in here with a lot of energy," said guard Skylar McBee. "We just have to match that. We're going to have to take it up another notch."
UT's coaches and players view themselves as an NCAA tournament team that fell short, and they view MTSU in the same respect. During a 20-2 start to the season, the Blue Raiders won by 20 at UCLA, beat Ole Miss by a dozen, split with a Belmont team that made the NCAA tournament and swept the same Austin Peay team that beat UT in Knoxville. After playing Vanderbilt to the final minutes in Nashville, MTSU sputtered some down the stretch.
The Blue Raiders lost twice on the road, though they still took home the Sun Belt Conference's regular-season title. After dropping the season finale at Western Kentucky, MTSU went down in the Sun Belt quarterfinals in a stunning loss to ninth-seeded Arkansas State. That loss relegated it to the NIT, where the Blue Raiders took down Marshall at home last week.
"Talented team, talented team," first-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. "Of course they have the talent to be an NCAA tournament team, but you've got to obviously be in the tournament to be an NCAA tournament team. They do have the talent and personnel to do it, but unfortunately with their league they've got to win the league [tournament].
"That's a disservice to those guys as well as they've played and how they competed."
The Vols are expecting to face a good team playing with a little something extra.
Though the respective schools' enrollment totals are fairly close, MTSU is certainly looking to add the big in-state school to its list of victims.
"I think the thing that we can't overlook is the fact that those guys expect to win the game," Martin said. "The advantage they have is they've seen us play all year. It's one of those deals where you've got guys that are saying, 'Man, I can play at Tennessee. I can play for that guy. I can play for that team. I can do what he's doing.' You deal with that.
"I witnessed it when I was a college player, I witnessed it when I was a coach and also at Missouri State [when] we were the team that was going into other team's gyms trying to get those wins. I wouldn't necessarily say they're hungrier, if that's the right way of saying it, [but] they have something to prove from that standpoint. Regardless of the opponent, we still have to play at a high level."
UT played three in-state mid-majors in Knoxville this season. The Vols blew an 11-point lead in the second half in the upset to Austin Peay, then pulled the trick in rallying past East Tennessee State. Chattanooga hung around for 30 minutes before the Vols pulled away.
Jarnell Stokes, the Vols' talented freshman forward, wasn't around for any of those games. As a Memphis native, though, he has some understanding of the in-state dynamic that's sure to be a factor tonight.
"Any in-state games, we consider rivalries," he said. "We know they're good. They're another team that should have been in the [NCAA] tournament. It should be a great game."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...