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Vols take struggling road show to George Mason
The Tennessee men's basketball team is down to its final chance to salvage some sense of accomplishment out of this season.
An opening-round road game at George Mason in the National Invitation Tournament is not what any of the Vols had in mind.
But, then, Tennessee is in no position to be choosy.
On Jan. 10, the Vols opened their SEC road schedule with a 38-point loss to Florida. Last Thursday, they bowed meekly from the SEC tournament in a 35-point loss to Alabama that might as well have been a carbon copy of their spanking in Gainesville two months earlier.
''When I see beginning to the end, there doesn't seem like much improvement,'' Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson said. ''But I know somewhere in there was some improvement. The thing that frustrates me the most is that I know we're capable.''
So here the Vols are, back in the NIT and facing what should be a hostile environment tonight at the Patriot Center.
It's not every day that an SEC team pays a visit to a Colonial Athletic Association arena.
''I told our guys that they're going to be jacked up and ready to play you and that you better be that same way,'' Peterson said. ''They're out to prove that they can play at our level and want to show everybody that they can.
''We've talked about being excited playing in the postseason. Is the NIT what we wanted? No, we didn't really want it. We wanted the NCAA. We have to take what we have right now, remember this and hope next year we're in the NCAA tournament.''
The reality is that Peterson and the Vols (15-13) have painted themselves into a precariously tight corner for next season.
They better do more than hope they're in the NCAA tournament next season. They better see to it that they're there. Otherwise, Buzz Ball in its current state could have a difficult time surviving.
''Next year there's no excuses, whether it's road wins, home wins, nothing,'' junior guard Scooter McFadgon said. ''Next year, we have to come out and get it done, and this is the time to start. It's a new season. We're starting over right now and want to play as many games as we can.''
There are telltale signs that Tennessee wasn't a hot commodity even for the NIT. The Vols were placed in the play-in round, didn't get a bye and are also having to travel. If they win tonight, they would face the Austin Peay-Belmont winner on Friday.
''In my mind, they're giving us a chance to get that road win,'' said McFadgon, who was on two NIT Final Four teams at Memphis, including the 2002 club that won the championship. ''That's how we have to look at it.'
Still, questions linger about how genuinely interested the Vols are about playing this game. If they weren't motivated to play in the SEC tournament, why would they be emotionally charged to play in the NIT?
This is also a team that physically is wearing down. Sophomore point guard C.J. Watson continues to be plagued by his sprained big toe while also battling some back pain.
The opening minutes could be key tonight because the Vols haven't had much of a pulse when falling behind this season on the road.
''If we get behind, six, seven, eight points on the road, can we come back from that?'' said Peterson, who won the NIT championship in 2001 in his only season at Tulsa. ''That's what I haven't seen out of this team, to fight back under those conditions.
''When that happens, we just haven't been very good at getting it back and getting it even.''
George Mason (21-9) is a two-point favorite tonight by Las Vegas oddsmakers. The Patriots just missed making the NCAA tournament when they lost 55-54 to Virginia Commonwealth in the CAA tournament championship game.
Tennessee connections: George Mason junior guard Terry Reynolds played as a freshman and sophomore at Pearl-Cohn High School. He then transferred to Oak Hill (Va.) Academy for his final two years and reunited for one year there with Ron Slay.
Reynolds has started 23 of his 28 games this season and is fourth on the team in scoring at 8.2 points per game.
Also, George Mason senior forward Deon Cooper played at Central High in Columbia, and George Mason assistant coach Eric Konkol was a graduate administrative assistant on Peterson's staff in 2002.
Tennessee men at George Mason
Time: 6 p.m.
Where: Patriot Center, Fairfax, Va.
Probable starters (Ht./ppg.)
G C.J. Watson 6-2/11.5
G Dane Bradshaw 6-3/3.5
C Major Wingate 6-10/3.5
F Brandon Crump 6-10/14.8
F Scooter McFadgon 6-5/17.9
George Mason (21-9)
G Lamar Butler 6-2/10.8
G Raoul Heinen 6-5/7.4
G Tony Skinn 6-1/8.0
F Kevin Mickens 6-9/4.6
F Jai Lewis 6-7/14.6