KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Monday afternoon, Jarnell Stokes got on a swanky double-deck bus bound for Dayton, Ohio. But before he did, he paused to remember.
He remembered another Monday one year ago after another Selection Sunday. There was no swanky bus ride. There was practice in Thompson-Boling Arena for an NIT game against Mercer.
“The NIT isn’t fun,” Stokes said Monday. “When we went out to practice today we just pictured how it was last year when we saw those NIT balls in our gym.
“Guys were mad, ready to fight each other. It was very ugly. So we’re happy we’re actually playing for something meaningful.”
Meaningful, you know, like ...
“We have a chance to win a national championship,” said junior Josh Richardson, supplying the answer.
Wednesday night in Dayton Arena against Iowa, the Vols start the quest for that national championship, long though the odds may be for an 11 seed.
Yeah, it’s the First Four, the auxiliary bracket. Scoff if you like. But it’s very real to a team of Vols who have yearned for this moment since the day they signed a letter of intent.
Seniors Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon got a tease, a bittersweet taste of the Big Dance as freshmen in 2011.
McRae played two minutes, Maymon one minute in a 75-45 loss to Michigan that preceded the firing of their coach, Bruce Pearl.
“No,” McRae said with a laugh, “that doesn’t count.
“I know we got blew out, the worst blowout without the winning team shooting (making, actually) a free throw the whole game.
“It’s not something I’m going to tell my kids about. I have to make this worth telling somebody.”
He figured another opportunity was just around the corner, that Tennessee would continue what was then a six-year run of NCAA tournaments. The Big Dance would be an annual part of the deal.
“Yeah,” McRae said, “I did envision that happening. But it didn’t happen.”
Instead, the Vols got two seasons ending with depressing NIT consolation prizes — and played accordingly.
“This can just change everything,” McRae said. “We make a run in the tournament and the NITs won’t matter, nothing will matter if we do what we’re supposed to do now.”
Every player comes to college dreaming of playing in the sport’s showcase event and, no offense, that’s not the NIT. But it doesn’t always work out.
Wayne Chism was lucky. He set a UT record with 11 NCAA tournament games. Chris Lofton got eight games and took away the eternal memory of winning one of them with a buzzer-beating shot in 2006.
Dale Ellis got eight games and UT’s first four wins. Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld got only two games and lost both.
Allan Houston and Tony White scored a combined 5,030 points and never set foot on an NCAA tournament court.
“It’s a blessing for us,” said Richardson.
Maymon also used “blessing” to sum up the opportunity that awaits the Vols this week. He’s happy for his coach. Wednesday will be Cuonzo Martin’s 203rd game as a head coach and his first in the Big Dance since his playing days at Purdue.
Even though the game itself was a bummer back in Charlotte in 2011, Maymon knew he wanted to make it back to the plate for another swing.
“Everything leading up to that game was pretty interesting,” he said. “The air tasted different. Everything around us felt different.”
Now, at long last, that feeling will be back again.
“This would mean everything to me,” McRae said. “This is one of the main reasons I came back, just to get a chance to go to the tournament, and we’re doing it.”
They’re doing it. The bus rolled out of campus Monday afternoon. There were no NIT balls on board.