A few short weeks ago, the Vols were squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble – they entered a home game with Mississippi State with a 13-7 record and a 5-3 mark in the SEC. A win would have given the Vols a 6-3 record at the halfway mark of conference play.
It wasn’t to be. A close home loss to Mississippi State dropped Tennessee’s RPI 20 spots and, since then, the Vols have gone 1-4 – with a three-point overtime road win at Vanderbilt, two one possession losses on the road and two 18 point losses at home.
That slide, in part, was due to a tough turn in the schedule. Kentucky and LSU are perhaps the two most talented teams in the league and the Vols were underdogs in each of their road losses. But the Vols also haven’t played particularly well during that stretch, especially at home.
When asked Monday what the goals were for his team moving forward, Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall didn’t hold back.
“I’m a big dreamer, if you will. My goal is to still find a way to go to the NCAA Tournament, which at this point and time, it looks like we would have to win the SEC Tournament,” Tyndall said. “We all understand how hard it would be just to win one game.
“That is still our goal. If you want to look and say you can’t do that, then we certainly hope to play in some type of postseason. The next goal would be in the NIT, because I just think any chance our team gets to play additional games as we move forward into next year, these practices and games will help a ton. We still hope and plan to play in the postseason with the goal being the NCAA Tournament, but I’m a realist in regards to how hard that is going to be to achieve.”
How hard would that be to achieve, exactly?
The Vols haven’t won a conference tournament championship since 1979, when they bested Kentucky 75-69 in overtime. In the 35 years since, Tennessee has played for the conference tournament championship just twice – they lost to Alabama by 19 points in 1991 and lost to Mississippi State by three in 2009.
At this point in the season, it would take an unprecedented run for the Vols to go dancing.
While the NCAA Tournament was never a likely destination for this team, a postseason bid of any kind starts with holding serve against Vanderbilt this Thursday.
“I know after this season, (playing in a third-tier postseason tournament) would not be something I would ever want to consider,” Tyndall said. “I think any postseason with this particular team, as youthful and inexperienced as we are, would be an accomplishment.”
Next season, Tyndall’s message is clear: “As we move this thing forward. We have one goal and one goal only – to play in the NCAA Tournament.”