It’s been quite the turn of events for the Tennessee basketball program in the last eight days.
The Vols have gone from the-team-that-almost-could to the team on a three-game winning streak with wins of all types.
The Vols, who had been consistently inconsistent until recently, took out a mediocre team (Mississippi State), an elite team (Kentucky) and a solid team (Kansas State) in succession. And in just a week’s time, they’ve gone from afterthought to NCAA Tournament hopeful.
But while Tennessee’s certainly changed the narrative of the season recently, the Vols aren’t there yet.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi put out his updated projected field of 68 on Sunday and Tennessee isn’t in the “first four out” or the “next four out,” meaning there’s still a fair amount of work to do. Tennessee is, however, on the radar now.
Per Lunardi, @Vol_Hoops is on the board but 13 spots out from being "in"
— Dane Bradshaw (@DaneBradshaw) January 29, 2017
Rick Barnes took a wait-and-see approach to UT’s tournament hopes after the Vols’ latest 70-58 win over KSU on Saturday.
“I don’t know,” Barnes said of what UT needs to do to make the tournament at this point. “All I know is that these guys have played one of the toughest schedules in the country and it’s separation month. You can talk about bubble teams, you can talk about NCAA teams. Right now people can go ahead and pencil in teams. There’s a few but there isn’t a lot. I’ve seen teams that were really good that you think are there go down the stretch and go away. There’s just a lot of basketball left to play and there’s probably 150 teams or so that are in a position to make a push to get themselves into postseason play. You can’t get caught up in that; you just have to play the next game.”
And while Tennessee just played its best and most consistent week of the season, the Vols’ next challenge will be going on the road. Tennessee will plays its next two away from Thompson-Boling Arena with trips to Auburn (1/31) and Mississippi State (2/4) up next.
Both games are certainly winnable, but the Vols must show that their new-found consistency extends on the road as well, where they’re 3-3 so far on the season and 2-2 in SEC play.
“Get into conference play and there are no easy games – we know that,” Barnes added. “This week coming up, we’ve got two tough road games. I still don’t understand why we’re still playing in the central time zone at 8 p.m., I don’t understand that yet. That’ll put us back here Wednesday at 2 a.m., then we turn around and go to Mississippi State Thursday. It’s a big week for us. We’re going to have to make sure we get our rest and do what we have to do.”
That’s because, despite the recent big wins, there’s still a lot of work to do. While the Vols have played their way back into postseason consideration, near-misses earlier in the year make the margin extremely tight.