KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is still seeking the type of non-conference win that could give its NCAA tournament hopes a major lift.
The Volunteers’ next chance comes Saturday as they visit No. 12 Wichita State (9-0) in their first game against a Top 25 opponent this season. The game will take place at Intrust Bank Arena, a downtown arena hosting this game that seats nearly 5,000 more fans than Wichita State’s usual home court.
“It’s just a big resume booster for us if we can get this win,” Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said.
Each of the last two years, Tennessee (6-2) has played in the NIT instead of the NCAA tournament because it has struggled through the first half of the season. Tennessee started 8-10 before finishing 19-15 in 2011-12. Last year, the Vols bounced back from an 11-10 start to go 20-13.
Throughout the preseason, the Vols emphasized the importance of a faster start. Although their 6-2 record looks good on the surface, a closer examination shows how Tennessee has fallen short.
Tennessee squandered one opportunity to beat a perennial NCAA tournament team when it lost its opener 67-63 at Xavier, though the Vols won a rematch 64-49 last month. Tennessee also fell 78-70 to UTEP in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis, which prevented a potential matchup with No. 10 Villanova or No. 13 Kansas later in the tournament.
“I still have faith in this program and my teammates,” said Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, who has four straight double-doubles. “The games that we lost, we didn’t play well at all. Just looking at the way we played lately, I think we have a shot at beating any team with the talent we have.”
The Vols need quality non-conference wins because the Southeastern Conference seems headed toward another down year. The conference’s only ranked teams are No. 11 Kentucky, No. 19 Florida and No. 24 Missouri. That’s one reason why the Vols want to make a statement Saturday.
Beating Wichita State wouldn’t guarantee anything. Tennessee defeated Wichita State 69-60 last year and still landed in the NIT while the Shockers made their surprising Final Four run. But a victory in this particular December game could really help Tennessee’s cause in March.
“First and foremost, you beat a talented team, that’s what it says more than anything,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Because everything’s based on RPI and that sort of thing, it would be a good win.”
Martin praised Wichita State’s program this weekend and singled out Shockers guard Ron Baker by saying “there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll play at the next level.” This game matches two physical teams that like to impose their will on opponents, as Tennessee ranks 12th nationally and Wichita State is 24th in rebound margin.
Martin has taken steps to make sure his team was prepared for Wichita State’s boisterous crowd and physical style of play. As Tennessee practiced Thursday, Wichita State’s fight song played at full volume. As players drove into the lane, assistant coaches held up padded sticks around the basket to block shots.
The Vols are hoping this extra preparation helps them end their road troubles. Tennessee is 7-16 in true road games during Martin’s three-year coaching tenure. The Vols fell to Xavier in their only true road game so far this season. The Vols realize the NCAA tournament selection committee takes great interest in how teams fare away from home.
“In past years we’ve struggled on the road,” Stokes said. “It’s too early to tell if we’ll struggle this year on the road. I guess Saturday will be a great indication.”