GAME NOTES: After having their NCAA Tournament dreams dashed, the Tennessee Volunteers will begin their National Invitation Tournament run on Wednesday night when they welcome the Mercer Bears to Thompson-Boling Arena.
Awaiting the winner in the second round will be the victor of the BYU/Washington matchup.
Mercer (23-11) earned an automatic bid to the NIT by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference outright, but it failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament after losing to Florida Gulf Coast in the conference tournament championship game, 88-75. The Bears have had recent success in the postseason, winning the CollegeInsider.com Tournament in 2012.
Tennessee put itself squarely in the NCAA Tournament discussion by winning nine of its last 11 games, including triumphs over Kentucky, Florida and Missouri during the stretch run of the regular season, but it dropped its SEC Tournament quarterfinal matchup to Alabama (58-48) to fall to 20-12 to ultimately land on the wrong side of the bubble. The Vols are no strangers to the NIT, having won their first-round matchup last season to Savannah State before losing to Middle Tennessee in the second round.
Mercer has beaten Tennessee in three of the four all-time meetings, but the Vols won the latest bout in December of 1993, 67-45.
The Bears usually play outstanding defense, holding opposing teams to a mere 58.2 ppg, but they did not have a strong performance in the A-Sun Tournament championship game, getting outshot from the field by FGCU in the 13-point loss, 50.8 percent to 38.8 percent. Travis Smith led the way in the setback with 16 points, Bud Thomas and Jakob Gollon netted 14 points apiece, and Langston Hall tallied 12 points, nine assists and six rebounds. Smith paces the squad with 13.5 ppg while boasting strong percentages from 3-point range (.421) and the foul line (.890). Hall chips in 11.0 ppg and has more than twice as many assists (143) as turnovers (63). As a team, Mercer is able to support its strong defense by netting a respectable 65.4 ppg.
The Volunteers picked a poor time to have one of their worst offensive performances of the season, as they shot just 32.1 percent from the field (including 5-of-23 from 3-point land) in the 10-point defeat in their quarterfinal matchup with Alabama. Jarnell Stokes was solid in the paint despite the loss with 12 points and 13 rebounds for his 15th double-double of the season, while Josh Richardson had 16 points. On the season, Tennessee's offensive number may not seem very impressive (66.3 ppg), but it has played impressive defense (63.0 ppg). Jordan McRae (16.0 ppg) emerged late in the season and earned First Team All-SEC honors. Stokes is as steady as they come in the trenches with 12.3 ppg (on 53.1 percent from the field), 9.5 rpg and 1.2 bpg. Trae Golden (11.9 ppg) doesn't boast a strong field goal percentage (.380), but he makes up for it with a solid assist (121) to turnover (60) ratio.
Smaller schools tend to be hungrier in these secondary postseason tournaments (as Mercer showed in last season's CIT), so a strong effort from the Bears is to be expected. Still, the Vols have played very well down the stretch, and at home, they should be able to outlast a pesky Mercer squad.