Despite narrowly missing out on the NCAA Tournament, first-year coach Cuonzo Martin and the Tennessee men’s basketball team have plenty left to play for, as they were selected as a No. 1 seed in the NIT on Sunday night.

After closing the regular season strong with a 10-4 record and finishing second in the SEC regular season standings, a nail-biting overtime loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals diminished the Vols’ chances of dancing in March, forcing them to try to erase a three-game losing streak in the NIT, which consists of 32 teams.
“We don’t look back at games we lost and say that could have put us in the tournament,” Martin said. “When you start looking back you kid yourself. You put your best foot forward and do everything in your power to win that ballgame and whatever happens happens. You play every game like it’s your last game so that way you don’t have to worry about if I had did this or we could’ve done that.”
First round play will tip off Tuesday as the Vols (18-14) will host the MEAC regular-season champion and No. 8-seed Savannah State Tigers (21-11), who are coached by MEAC Coach of the Year Horace Broadnax.
The NIT berth marks Tennessee’s 12th all-time appearance, in which it has compiled a 12-11 record. The Vols’ most recent appearance in the NIT was in 2004 when they lost to George Mason 58-55 in the first round.
Although the Vols were hoping for a seventh-straight NCAA Tournament berth, they are excited to be able to play inside Thompson-Boling Arena.
“It will be nice to be at home and have our fans behind us and generate some energy for us to get out of the gates to a fast start,” Martin said. “Sometimes you have a tendency as a player to be a little relaxed somewhat to get over that hump that you’re not in the NCAA Tournament and you need your fans to get you over that hump.”
The Tigers come into the game averaging 63.7 points per game and fare well on the boards with 36.1 rebounds per game. They did not fare well against .500 or better teams, finishing 3-8 against those opponents. Junior forward Rahad Hassan leads the attack on offense for the Tigers, averaging a team-high 12.8 points per contest.
“I know they won their conference, and we have been going over tape on them,” Martin said. “They will be tough; they will defend and play hard.”
The Vols will be looking to senior guard Cameron Tatum, who ranks second on UT’s all-time games played list, and junior forward Jeronne Maymon, who was chosen as a second-team All-SEC selection this season, to help lead the way and try to win their first NIT Championship in school history.
Maymon averaged 12.6 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game this season, while sophomore point guard Trae Golden led the team in scoring with 13.7 points per game.
“We still get to play the game we love and we are competing for a championship,” Tatum said. “I just have to make sure everybody is still energetic and still understands that we have something important to play for.”
UT bounced back from a rough start at the beginning of the season, as well as a 2-5 start in conference play, and has made the most of its late-season opportunities.
“I think it’s a credit to our guys,” Martin said about the team’s turnaround from a 3-6 start to the season. “As a coach, you always want to see your guys get better as the season goes on and I thought they really did that and never stopped fighting.”
The No. 1-seed Vols will tip off against Savannah State at 8 p.m. EST and will be broadcast on ESPNU. The winner will go on to play the winner of a game between No. 4-seed Middle Tennessee and No. 5-seed Marshall.