Through 26 games of the regular season, the Tennessee Vols basketball team has a 14-12 overall record and is currently 8th in the SEC. On the surface, those numbers don’t exactly scream “NCAA Tournament bound.” But a deeper look into the Vols’ stats and overall resume tell a different story.
As it stands right now, the Vols have an RPI of 46 according to NCAA.com. That’s a better RPI than all but four SEC teams. Ken Pomeroy, an NCAA Tournament bracketologist guru, has the Vols ranked as the No. 42 team in the country.
And all of this after the Vols have lost three of their last four games and just got embarrassed on the road at Kentucky.
The Vols’ numbers were, of course, much more impressive before this recent run of bad basketball. But even after collapsing in two losses and getting dominated by Kentucky, Tennessee is still within shouting distance of making the NCAA Tournament. And as long as they don’t take another bad loss down the stretch in the regular season, it’s more than just a long shot for it to happen.
Tennessee’s final five games of the regular season play out favorably for them. The Vols have a road trip to currently No. 21 South Carolina, but even that one is “winnable” for a Vol squad that already has two RPI 50 victories. The rest of Tennessee’s schedule is much more favorable.
The Vols have the two worst SEC teams still left on their schedule. They host Missouri, who is 2-10 in the conference, this weekend and travel to LSU, who is 1-12, on March 1st. Tennessee also hosts Vanderbilt and ends the season with a home game against Alabama. Of those teams, only Alabama (14-10) has a winning record. Missouri, LSU, and Vanderbilt are a combined 28-46.
But beating a team twice is no small task. The Vols have yet to do that this season, so defeating Vanderbilt is no given. Alabama is no pushover either, and they’re right there on the NCAA Tournament bubble along with Tennessee.
The best case scenario for the Vols would be to win out in the regular season. If they do that, they’ll finish with 19 regular season wins and add another RPI 50 win to their resume with a victory over South Carolina. Going 4-1 down the stretch with the only loss being to the Gamecocks would also be a strong ending. Even losing to Alabama but still defeating South Carolina would put the Vols in a good spot heading into the SEC Tournament.
Anything else, however, and the Vols are likely out unless they make a lot of noise in the SEC Tournament.
Regardless of how the Vols’ regular season ends, they still need to make at least a little run in the SEC Tournament. Going one-and-done in the tournament would only be detrimental to the Vols’ NCAA Tournament hopes. Winning at least one game would help, but winning two or three could potentially seal an at-large bid depending on the teams they beat.
If Tennessee can finish the season and SEC Tournament with anywhere between 19-21 victories, they should be going to the Big Dance when it’s all said and done. Historically, teams with those win totals and the kind of RPI and strength of schedule numbers the Vols have don’t miss the Tournament.
Right now according to TeamRankings.com’s bracket projections, the Vols have a 26 percent chance of making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. Team Rankings has the Vols projected as an 11 or 12-seed should they make the Tournament. Those numbers aren’t promising, but they’re not nails in the coffin by any means.
The Vols have an uphill climb left to make if they want to end up in the NCAA Tournament. Fortunately for them, their path is one they’ve proven they can tread. They just have to snap out of their funk they’ve been in the past couple weeks. If Tennessee can do that, they should be dancing come March.
And if not, then there’s always the NIT.