On one hand, Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes is taking the more traditional one-game-at-a-time approach when it comes to Tennessee (12-9, 4-4) and any chances the Vols might have at making an NCAA Tournament run this year.
“We told them that there are a lot of teams that should be in the bubble conversation – that isn’t what it’s about,” Barnes said during his Monday press conference. “Why talk about it? It doesn’t do any good to talk about it. What you want to do is win basketball games and take out the talk. That’s what we have told them. We aren’t going to get caught up in it, and we are going to continue with the process we have had since day one.”
But Barnes has been in the profession long enough to know that, while it’s a day-by-day approach, Tennessee’s three-game winning streak and the subsequent shift in conversation to the Vols potentially being a bubble team, is also a step towards where he and the program ultimately want to get.
“Well, there’s no doubt, I want to be in (the tournament) every year,” he said. “I love it. That’s what you do this for. My thought process is, what I said earlier, is that I’ve got to continue to do my job as coaches, and we will. The fact is, you don’t think about it, other than, what we’re trying to do is not easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. We’re wanting to be one of 68 teams, like every team that started out this season, trying to be one of 68 teams in the tournament. But it still goes back to, you’ve got to get better every day. All you can control is today.”
Tennessee controlled a lot in the past nine days, stringing together victories against Mississippi State, then-No. 4 Kentucky and tournament contender Kansas State.
The Vols jumped up to No. 41 in the NCAA’s RPI, which was updated on Monday. USA Today projects the Vols in the NCAA Tournament as a play-in No. 11 seed. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi isn’t quite as bullish on UT’s hopes, but does have the Vols on the radar now.
Things have certainly changed.
But with 10 games still to go on the regular-season schedule, Tennessee very much is in control of its own destiny, and while dreaming of the tournament is fine, it’ll be UT’s work in the SEC grind in the next month that ultimately determines if the Vols are legitimate contenders to extend their season well into March.
“I’ve watched a lot of teams in conversation this time of year about being in the tournament that don’t make it,” Barnes added. “There are teams out there that everybody has written off as, ‘They’re going to be there.’ You ask me what I know. That’s what I know. I watched that happen many, many times over. So, just being in the conversation doesn’t mean a lot, if you’re going to be there at the end, and that’s what I hope we’re able to do.”