published Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Tennessee Vols confident but 'anxious' about NCAA berth

ATLANTA — For all three of his seasons at Memphis, Tennessee point guard Antonio Barton woke up on Selection Sunday knowing his Tigers were firmly in the NCAA tournament after winning the Conference USA tournament and that league's automatic berth into the 68-team field.

Today will be a little bit different.

Most bracket projections had the Volunteers as one of the last teams in the NCAA tournament before a 56-49 loss to top-ranked Florida in the SEC tournament semifinals at the Georgia Dome on Saturday afternoon, but Tennessee won't know its fate until the bracket is unveiled on CBS at 6 p.m.

"It's kind of got me on the edge of my seat," Barton said in the Vols' locker room after the loss. "I'm anxious to see where we're going to be, or if we're even going to get in or not. I think we're going to be in."

Despite a shortage of quality wins, Tennessee does have a solid RPI near 40 -- it was 59 when the Vols didn't get in the tournament last season -- and good strength-of-schedule numbers.

A 35-point defeat of Virginia in late December serves as the Vols' best win, and they also beat Xavier, another likely tournament team.

"Oh yeah, I think we're in," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "Rest assured. Now the focus is where we're going, where we're seeded at and keep moving."

The concerns with Tennessee's profile are four bad losses -- to Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt and UTEP. Yet five losses came against the country's best team (Florida, three times), Division I's only unbeaten team (Wichita State) and the team that began the season No. 1 in the polls (Kentucky).

"Certainly I believe they're an NCAA tournament team," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I don't think there's any question about it. I think Cuonzo has done a great job of kind of establishing his culture and how he wants his teams to play.

"They have got everything to really go far, in my opinion."

The Vols will watch the selection show privately this evening, and Martin will address his team's destination after it's known.

"We're all right," guard Josh Richardson said. "We think we're in. We can't do nothing about it anyway, so we're just going to sit and watch."

The Vols were disappointed in the outcome of Saturday's game, but they collectively felt their performance against the likely top overall seed in the NCAA tournament validated their credentials.

"I'm extremely confident," Barton said. "I think we came out, we just played the No. 1 team in the country and we took it down to the wire. I don't think there's too many teams out there that's better than us, so I don't see why not."

Said Richardson: "We can play with anybody in the country. Florida's the best team in the country, hands down. We were up a lot of the game. We just didn't finish it."

Selection Sunday was unkind to Tennessee in Martin's first two seasons, but the Vols say they feel more confident heading into it this year than the past two, when a berth in the National Invitation Tournament was all with which they left.

"There's no nerves about it," senior forward Jeronne Maymon said. "It's in their hands. I don't know what goes into picking an NCAA team, so hopefully we'll see tomorrow."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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