The six-year streak of NCAA Tournaments is over for Tennessee. What a drag, right?

It’s actually not the worst thing. In fact, it might even be a blessing for the Vols.

UT coach Cuonzo Martin said it numerous times in the last few games of the season: Tennessee is an NCAA Tournament team.

Yes, the Tennessee team we see right now looks like an NCAA team. Finishing the season winning 10 of 14, including wins against UConn, Vanderbilt and at Florida, and placing second in conference play, the Vols would have normally been something along the lines of a No. 6 seed.

But it’s a body of work, and Tennessee’s is missing an arm and a leg. Losses to Oakland, College of Charleston and a 12-20 Austin Peay squad at home back in November and December were enough to nullify the spark that Jarnell Stokes gave to a wandering squad.

“Obviously you want to be in the NCAA Tournament,” Martin said. “But like I told the guys, we had 32 games to do our work and we came up short. That’s part of it.”

Now, why is making the NIT, the island of misfit toys that couldn’t make it onto the real island of misfit toys known as the Last Four In, a blessing?

If Tennessee had made it into the field of 68, they would have likely been stuck as a 13- or 14-seed. Granted, the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds aren’t elite this year, and some are even suspect (re: Baylor), but even some of the best Tennessee teams had issues in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in the past six years. Whether they barely made it out, didn’t look good doing it, or even lost, it was tough for them. And they were usually the higher seed.

If you need proof that the Vols probably weren’t ready for the NCAA Tournament and all its pressure, watch some tape from the 77-72 overtime loss to Ole Miss in the quarterfinals of the SEC tourney. Even though Tennessee hadn’t proved it was an NCAA team throughout the whole season, it had the chance to in the SEC Tournament, and, frankly, it flopped.

The NCAA Tournament is for the big boys. It’s the gut check of gut checks. It offers the potential glory of being the last team standing, hoisting up that big trophy while wearing fresh championship hats and T-shirts while the confetti rains from the rafters.

But for half of the teams, it ends on the first day, and it ends hard. Whether you lose by one or 100, there’s no way to lose in the NCAAs that isn’t heartbreaking.

So here’s the question. What’s better for this team heading forward: getting knocked out and possibly embarrassed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, or playing a couple games at home, and maybe even games against the likes of Washington or Arizona in the world-famous Madison Square Garden in New York?

I’d gladly take the latter, especially if I were Tennessee.

Momentum is hard to come by for any team in any conference in any division. When you manage to work hard enough to stumble into its fickle fortunes, you don’t want to leave.

It doesn’t matter if no one will remember or care, an NIT Championship would be a great catapult into next season, where Tennessee will all of the sudden have experience and potentially one of the nation’s premier frontcourts in Stokes and Jeronne Maymon.

The NIT isn’t the Big Dance, but it’s music the Vols can tap their feet to. That’s a good start.