KNOXVILLE — Trae Golden said he'd be unable to do what most of the country has done the past two days.
Tennessee's point guard expected before the season began that he and his team would be in the NCAA tournament, a belief the Volunteers maintained on Selection Sunday after turning around a middling season with a late run.
Once it wasn't chosen for the big tournament, Tennessee ended coach Cuonzo Martin's second season with a National Invitation Tournament first-round flameout.
"Right now it's tough," Golden said of watching the NCAA tournament after the Vols' loss to Mercer on Wednesday night, "just because you see a couple of teams and tilt your head sideways wondering why you didn't make it.
"I could watch it last year. I don't think we deserved to be in last year, but this year was different. It's a tough way to end a year, especially with the expectations going into the year."
Martin stood in the lobby of Tennessee's basketball offices a year ago on the night of Selection Sunday and declared his teaam would be in this year's NCAA tournament.
"You bring me here a year from now and we're standing here and that happens," he said that night, "it'd be a problem."
Another slow start was the problem that sent Tennessee to the NIT for the second consecutive year.
After the preseason injury setback to All-SEC forward Jeronne Maymon, the Vols missed opportunities at notable nonconference wins with a struggling offense that managed 37 and 38 points in back-to-back road losses at Georgetown and Virginia.
The coinciding slumps of Golden and Jarnell Stokes led to a 3-6 start in Southeastern Conference play that left Tennessee at 11-10 at the midway point of the league season.
The Vols took off from there, winning eight of their last nine to close the regular season, a run that included four wins their last five SEC road games, a 30-point thrashing of Kentucky and home victories against Missouri and SEC champion Florida.
"I feel like it's a confidence booster, knowing we can win and reel off games like that," guard Josh Richardson said. "I think we'll be fine next year, especially if Jeronne's healthy. I think we'll have a good chance at making the [NCAA] tournament and having a good year next year."
The season-ending losses to Alabama in the SEC tournament quarterfinals and to Mercer in a listless NIT performance will leave a bitter taste, but the Vols say they can take positives from their surge.
"I thought it was a good season," Martin said. "We started out slow. These last two games don't define our season. I thought our guys did a great job as the season [progressed], really fighting back and showing a level of mental toughness down the stretch of a season, and guys got better."
Jordan McRae made big strides as a junior and led Tennessee in scoring, and Stokes' production increased when he began avoiding foul trouble and crashing the glass. The Vols went as Golden did. It took until early February for the players to find their roles.
Martin's third Tennessee team likely will need to be retooled, too.
Assuming McRae and Stokes don't bolt for the NBA draft, Tennessee's core will return in addition to two pieces it didn't have this season: Maymon, the team's tough emotional leader and glue guy, and Robert Hubbs, the five-star shooting guard who will join the Vols with sky-high expectations.
Martin, 39-28 overall and 21-13 in the SEC at Tennessee, took over the Vols' program trying to maintain a six-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances, and he'll go into his third season trying to end a two-year tournament drought.
"It's the same thing it was last year: Our goal is to get to the tournament," McRae said. "We've just got to do better starting off seasons. I've got to be a better leader than I was, and everybody's got to look in the mirror this summer and work on themselves."
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 ...