The Big Orange has a full-blown emotional hangover after (1) losing its SEC Tournament opener on Friday night and (2) learning Sunday evening that it had played its way off the NCAA Tournament bubble and into the National Invitation Tournament.
Since the drop from NCAA to NIT is comparable to the drop from filet mignon to bologna, the top-seeded Vols are bitterly disappointed as they prepare to face No. 8 seed Savannah State Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. If that disappointment isn't gone by the 8 p.m. tipoff, however, Tennessee's hangover could be even worse by Wednesday morning. The Vols certainly wouldn't be the first favored team to come out flat and suffer an embarrassing first-round NIT setback.
"Sometimes you'll see a team that doesn't want to be in the NIT because they thought they should've been in the NCAA," sophomore point guard Trae Golden conceded. "I think if we go out and play with the same intensity as if we were in the NCAAs, without thinking about anything, then we'll be fine."
Generating NCAA intensity for an NIT game is easier said than done, of course, especially considering the level of frustration the Vols are feeling.
"I think you take it out on the court," Golden said. "You play as hard as you can, play with a chip on your shoulder, to show everybody that you should've been in the NCAA Tournament."
No Vol has more reason to be dejected than fifth-year senior Cameron Tatum. He was part of four NCAA Tournament teams only to miss The Dance in his final college season. Still, he's trying to be philosophical.
"We're still playing for something that's important to us," he said. "It's still the game of basketball, something everybody loves to play. We should be happy to compete again.... It's very important to go out on a high note and try to get this NIT championship."
"Of course, we're down about it," he said, "but just having another chance to play is a great feeling. We're going to try to win this tournament and redeem ourselves."
Junior wing Skylar McBee described the Vols as "disheartened," but expressed confidence they will bounce back by Tuesday night's tipoff.
"I think a lot of it has to do with Coach (Cuonzo) Martin," he said. "Coach Martin is not going to let us be down in the dumps. It's time to get back to work. That's the kind of guy he is: You move on to the next one, and I think that's a really big factor in the way our team thinks about it."
Golden believes reaching the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden would heal a lot of the hurt Tennessee suffered at the hands of Ole Miss and the Selection Committee.
"I'm definitely glad we get a chance to play some more basketball," he said. "The chance to go off on a good note is a great thing.... We're going to go out there and play as hard as we can, try to get to New York."
Ultimately, the Vols played so poorly in non-conference action that their 10-6 SEC record failed to get them an NCAA bid. The same fate befell Alabama in 2010-11, as the Tide was relegated to the NIT despite a 12-4 conference record. Bama managed to get refocused, however, and win four NIT games before bowing in the 2011 tourney finals.
"Alabama is a team I thought about, from that situation," Golden said. "They went out and got to New York. We can't hang our heads about anything. We just have to continue to play hard, compete. All of these teams are good teams, too, so we have to make sure we play hard and compete."
As the only senior who plays meaningful minutes, Tatum feels considerable responsibility to see that the Vols are ready to play hard Tuesday night.
"I just need to make sure everybody's energetic, make sure everybody understands we still have something important to play for," he said. "It's still a postseason tournament.... And it'll be good for the guys to have some momentum going into next season."