|Surprising Tennessee opens tourney against Wright State|
The No. 3 seed Tennessee Volunteers take on the No. 14 seed Wright State Raiders on Thursday in an opening-round NCAA tournament game between two teams that weren't expected to be dancing in March.
The Volunteers and Raiders meet in Dallas, with the winner advancing to face the winner of No. 6 Miami, Fla., and No. 11 Loyola-Chicago.
Tennessee (25-8) won a share of the SEC regular-season title and reached the conference tournament championship game in coach Rick Barnes' third season running Rocky Top.
Tennessee has nonconference wins over Purdue and North Carolina State and also beat Kentucky in two out of three meetings this season.
"It has been a battle, a war throughout," Barnes said Monday of the SEC, which got eight teams into the NCAA Tournament, with the Vols receiving the highest seed of the bunch. "Every game you played, there weren't any easy games at all."
Wright State (25-9) faced two NCAA Tournament teams during the regular season and lost both games: 84-80 against Loyola Chicago and 80-61 against Murray State. Along the way, senior captain Justin Mitchell left the team for personal reasons in early January and did not return.
But don't sleep on the Raiders.
Coach Scott Nagy's team rolled through the Horizon League Tournament, thumping Cleveland State by 17 in the championship game. Wright State thrives on the defensive end of the floor, ranking in the top 30 nationally in points allowed (65.7). (Tennessee is surrendering 66.1 points, so don't expect an offensive explosion).
Senior guard Grant Benzinger leads Wright State in scoring at 14.5 points per game, and freshman center Loudon Love is averaging 12.9 points and 9.8 rebounds.
"We believe we can win games in the tournament," point guard Cole Gentry told mydaytongdailynews.com. "We have a belief in our system and as long as we stay together, we believe we can win."
It won't be easy. The Volunteers finished strong, winning six of their last seven. They fell behind Kentucky early in the SEC Tournament championship game, but mounted a valiant comeback behind their star tandem of Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams.
Schofield and Williams combined for 39 points and 19 rebounds, but Tennessee came up short in a 77-72 loss to the Wildcats on Sunday.
"We started the game and dug ourselves a hole and, obviously, they were making some shots," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "We weren't playing the way we were capable of; we just weren't locked in."
To start the season, no one thought the Volunteers would even sniff the conference tournament championship game. Tennessee was picked to finish 13th in the rugged, 14-team SEC by the media in the preseason. The Vols have far exceeded those expectations.
Barnes is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the 23rd time. He's taken six teams to at least the Sweet 16 and reached the Final Four with Texas in 2003.
Wright State is making just its third appearance in the NCAA Tournament and will be looking to notch its first tournament win.
"Some people looked at this team this year in terms of some of the losses and what we had coming back and thought it was a rebuilding year because of the freshmen we'd be playing," Nagy told reporters Monday. "But that's not the way we want our guys to think. I go into every season thinking that (the NCAA Tournament) is a possibility."