Tennessee schools in jeopardy of missing men’s NCAA hoops

Barring a late-season surge or an upset in a conference tournament, the state likely won't have any representation at the “big dance.”

by Steve Megargee Associated Press | 2/11/2015, 2:14 p.m.
Barring a late-season surge or an upset in a conference tournament, the state likely won't have any representation at the ...
Memphis point guard Kedron Johnson makes a move against a Temple defender during the Tigers’ down-to-the-wire loss at the FedExForum last Saturday. (Photo: Warren Roseborough)

KNOXVILLE – The state of Tennessee might be shut out of the NCAA men's basketball tournament for the first time since 2002.

With Tennessee and Vanderbilt recovering from offseason roster turnover and Memphis struggling with injuries and inconsistency, the Volunteer State doesn't have any schools included among the top 85 teams in the RPI heading into Wednesday's Tennessee-Vanderbilt matchup in Nashville.

Barring a late-season surge by one of those three teams or an upset in a conference tournament, the state of Tennessee likely won't have any NCAA tournament representation. The last time that happened was 13 years ago, when Memphis won the NIT.

The potential lack of Tennessee representation in the NCAA men's tournament would be a major change for a state that boasts plenty of consistent postseason participants.

Memphis has been to the NCAA tournament eight of the last nine years, including a runner-up finish in 2008. Tennessee has seven NCAA tournament invitations in the last nine years. Belmont has earned six NCAA bids over the last nine seasons, while Vanderbilt has five in the last eight seasons.

But this has been a trying season for the state's three biggest programs, although they're all over .500.

Injuries left Memphis (14-10, 6-5 American) with only eight healthy scholarship players available Tuesday for the Tigers' 64-53 loss at East Carolina. Arguably the toughest blow came Saturday, when leading scorer Austin Nichols sprained his ankle in a 61-60 loss to Temple. Nichols is expected to miss two weeks.

"There's no question if Austin is in the game that we win," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said after the Temple game. "Guys know Austin is our best player, and when he goes down with six minutes to go in the game, that's a punch in the gut to this team."

Tennessee (13-9, 5-5 SEC) overachieved for the first half of the season but has lost four of its last five games. Senior guard Josh Richardson is the only Volunteer who averaged more than five points for the Tennessee team that reached a regional semifinal last season.

"If you lose four out of five, you can't feel sorry for yourself," Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall said. "It's still about the daily grind and trying to improve every day. Nobody in college basketball is going to feel sorry for me, my staff or my team because we are losing, I can promise you that. You have to come back in the gym, come back in the film room with a focus and a determination and try to get better. If you do that, I think eventually the wins will take care of themselves."

Vanderbilt (13-10, 3-7 SEC) has endured growing pains while starting three freshmen and a sophomore. The Commodores have won their last two games after dropping seven straight.

"I'm feeling a little better than we were a week or two ago," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.

Plenty of Tennessee schools from traditional one-bid leagues are having solid seasons. That group includes Belmont (15-9, 7-4 Ohio Valley), UT Martin (15-8, 7-3 Ohio Valley), Chattanooga (16-9, 9-3 Southern), East Tennessee State (13-10, 6-7 Southern) and Middle Tennessee (13-11, 6-5 Conference USA).

But no Tennessee team figures to enter its conference tournament as the top seed.

Belmont, UT Martin, Tennessee Tech (11-13, 3-8), Austin Peay (7-17, 2-6) and Tennessee State (5-20, 2-8) are all chasing Ohio Valley front-runner Murray State, which is undefeated in conference play. Chattanooga and ETSU trail Wofford in the Southern Conference standings. Middle Tennessee and Lipscomb (10-13, 4-4 Atlantic Sun) are in the middle of the pack in their respective conferences.