NIT 2012: Why Tennessee Will Be the Last Team Standing

Steven CookFeatured Columnist IVMarch 18, 2012

NEW ORLEANS, LA - MARCH 09:  Reginald Buckner #23 of the Mississippi Rebels fights for a rebound with Trae Golden #11 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the quarterfinals of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at the New Orleans Arena on March 9, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

It's hard to call the Tennessee Volunteers a NCAA tournament snub at 19-14, but they're the hottest team in the NIT, and no one in the field can match up with them if the Vols are at their best.

Winners of nine of their last 11, Tennessee unbelievably finished second in the SEC at 10-6 and swept rival Florida, who has a real shot at the Final Four.  

It took a while for the players to buy in to first-year head coach Cuonzo Martin's system, but they've played impressively since. Martin, who preaches lock-down defense and bustling work ethic, is getting the most out of a team that lost over 60 percent of its scoring last offseason and retained only one starter.

They came closest in the SEC regular season slate to beating top-ranked Kentucky, leading for more than 30 minutes of the game before coming up short in a 65-62 defeat.  

As a No. 1 seed, Tennessee has the luxury of playing in front of a revitalized and energetic fanbase in Knoxville who are viewing the NIT as an opportunity to start next season's run to the NCAA tournament.

They will face in-state foe Middle Tennessee State on Monday at 7 p.m. EDT on ESPN.  

Tennessee's floor general, sophomore Trae Golden, scores 14 points per game and dishes out nearly five assists despite averaging just three points per game last season. When Golden cuts down on turnovers and finds his shot, he's lethal. 

The Vols have a bruising combo of power forwards down low in Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, who average nearly 23 points and 16 rebounds combined per game. They'll be lost if they are forced to play without Maymon.  

Maymon, the heart of UT's team, missed the NIT opener against Savannah State to nurse a bruised knee that he played with throughout the last few games of the season. He's questionable for Monday against MTSU. 

The biggest indication of Tennessee's midseason turnaround is the freshman Stokes. The 2012 5-star recruit came out of high school a semester early and has shifted from the status of role player to a starter and forceful post presence.

Martin has this team playing inspired defense. They hang their hat on contesting shots and gaining position, so don't expect to shoot .500 on these Volunteers.  

A tournament team can only go as far as their best deep-threat shooter takes them. Tennessee's mustached sharpshooter, Skylar McBee, shoots a team-best .404 from three-point range and has made 63 shots from downtown to only four two-point field goals. 

The Vols may have had too off-and-on of a season to make the Big Dance, but they've been much more on than off in the last half of the season. If that's any indication, Martin's crew will be cutting down the nets in Madison Square Garden.