KNOXVILLE — The confidence simply had to be waning as the nerves started to crescendo.
The NCAA tournament selection show was deep into revealing the 68-team field’s third region, and Tennessee had yet to see its name flash across the screen as the team watched at third-year coach Cuonzo Martin’s house on Sunday evening.
One by one other bubble teams — BYU, Nebraska, Dayton, Stanford, Xavier and, most surprisingly, North Carolina State — saw its name included in college basketball’s biggest spectacle.
As the fear of being left out for a third straight season began to increase, Tennessee got the invite to the Big Dance.
The Volunteers will play in their first NCAA tournament since 2011 on Wednesday night in Dayton against Iowa in one of the two play-in games for the final four non-automatic qualifiers.
“The guys were excited,” Martin, only the fifth Tennessee coach to take the program to the NCAA tournament, said outside of the Vols’ basketball offices late Sunday night. “They weren’t overjoyed. They weren’t jumping around and tearing up the furniture or anything, but they were excited about it.
“It was, ‘OK, we’re in, let’s get to rolling and let’s do what we need to do to be successful.’ It’s business.”
The Vols and and Hawkeyes, who finished sixth in the Big 10 and went 4-8 against other NCAA tournament teams, will meet for the fourth time ever and the first time since 2000, and the winner will face Massachusetts, the Midwest Region’s No. 6 seed, on Friday in Raleigh, N.C.
The Vols felt confident after taking Florida, the tournament’s top overall seed, down to the wire before losing in the SEC tournament semifinals on Saturday, but there, too, was some level of relief after needing a late-season, five-game winning streak to nab one of the field’s last at-large berths.
Now Tennessee can focus on validating its spot in the field and trying to make a run.
“I know our guys deserved it,” said Martin, whose contract stipulates he gets a $50,000 bonus for reaching the NCAA tournament. “I wanted our guys to get that opportunity to play in the tournament, and also for my assistant coaches. The time and the work they put into it, I wanted that to happen, so I’m happy for them.
“Just excited for the program and the fans that were there through thick and thin and continued to support,” he added. “I’m happy for all them, because you wouldn’t imagine how many former players — and I’m not just talking about basketball, but football, baseball, volleyball and miltary that send letters, emails, ‘We support you guys’ — it’s just tremendous.
“It’s for those people that really stuck with our program.”
The Vols had strong enough RPI and strength-of-schedule numbers, and the 35-point win against No. 1-seed Virginia in late December looked better and better throughout the season as the Cavaliers went on to sweep the ACC regular season and tournament titles. Tennessee also played two other No. 1 seeds in Florida and Wichita State and split two games with Xavier.
Tennessee’s NCAA chances looked the bleakest after an overtime loss at Texas A&M that left the Vols 7-7 in SEC play on Feb. 22, but Martin and his team kept it together and won five straight games to close the regular season.
Iowa, meanwhile, stumbled down the stretch. After beating Big 10 regular-season champion Michigan on Feb. 8, the Hawkeyes, who will play in their first tournament since 2006 in their fourth season under coach Fran McCaffery, lost six of eight, the only wins coming at Penn State and at home against Purdue.
The Hawkeyes were bounced out of the Big 10 tournament in the first round by Northwestern.
“They probably felt like they were on the outside looking in,” Martin said, “then all of the sudden, they see their name called, ‘We’ve got another season, guys.’ It rejuvenates them. It’s a new season for everybody.”
In the full seed list the NCAA tournament selection committee released later Sunday, Tennessee was the highest seeded of the four at-large teams heading to Dayton, and the Vols likely were bumped there by Providence winning the Big East’s automatic bid against Creighton on Saturday night.
It’s the fourth tournament since the field expanded to 68 teams and added the four games in Dayton — the two Tuesday night games feature four No. 16 seeds — and in each of the past three seasons a team that played there reached at least the round of 32.
VCU made an incredible run to the Final Four in 2011, South Florida reached the round of 32 in 2012 and La Salle made it to the Sweet 16 last season.
“It’s the NCAA tournament,” Martin said. “Whether it’s play-in, play-out, play in New York, California — I mean, you’re in. You’re excited to be in.”
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...