It was easy to buy the hype just a touch following Tennessee’s four-game winning streak that concluded with a win at Auburn on Jan. 31.
Tennessee had just defeated two likely NCAA tournament teams in Kentucky and Kansas State, sandwiched by decent SEC wins against Mississippi State and Auburn. This team, despite coming up just short time and time again earlier in the year, was putting it all together it seemed. There was still a lot of work to be done, but, buoyed by a strong RPI and strength of schedule, this team had a realistic shot at the Big Dance.
The always sage Rick Barnes, however, had some wise words in the midst of Tennessee’s four-game run in January.
“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,” Barnes said following Tennessee’s 70-58 win over Kansas State on Jan. 28. “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. Get into conference play and there are no easy games. We know that.”
That “separation month” Barnes mentioned hasn’t treated the Vols well.
It’s great to put together a run in January, but this young team would have to prove itself in February and into March to be one of the 68 teams in the tournament. Unfortunately for Tennessee, the separation is going in the wrong direction.
The Vols have now lost three of four since that win at Auburn. Two of them – at Mississippi State and against Georgia – featured blown double-digit leads against beatable teams. Tuesday night’s beatdown in Lexington was never a contest.
“We were really just gosh awful,” Barnes said following the 83-58 loss to No. 13 Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
Not exactly what you want to hear as a team makes its final push towards tournament contention.
According to a vast majority of bracketology experts, Tennessee (14-12, 6-7 SEC) now clearly sits on the outside looking in at this point. That was true even before Tuesday night. So the Vols must find a way to bottle that January run and put another one together in the remaining weeks.
The schedule is about to turn favorable, however.
It’s pretty simple. There are three teams left that the Vols should beat – Vanderbilt, Missouri and LSU. One –Alabama – that they certainly can beat. And one – South Carolina – that UT will need to play one of its best games of the year to beat.
The margin for error is now razor thin. Getting four of those five would send the Vols to Nashville for the SEC tournament with some work to do, but at least a shot. Get all five, and the Vols are right back in the picture. Drop two or more, however, and the separation will be about complete.
Just having this conversation is a nice accomplishment for a Tennessee team that was picked to finished second to last in the league. But the hype and excitement of just a few weeks ago has clearly worn off.
The Vols are now in danger of being one of the teams Barnes mentioned that “go away” down the stretch.