With Tennessee’s collapse on the road against Auburn on Saturday, the Vols’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament at the end of the 2020 season have all but evaporated. In order for UT to earn a bid to the Big Dance, they’d have to do something they haven’t proven they can do all season: String together several quality wins in a row.
This season, Tennessee (15-12, 7-7 SEC) is just 2-6 against teams currently ranked in the top 50 of the Ken Pomeroy rankings. All four of the teams left on UT’s schedule are ranked in the top 50 of the KenPom rankings, and although the Vols do have a win against one of those teams already (Arkansas), Tennessee will be facing the Razorbacks on the road on Wednesday, a place where UT has had a great deal of bad luck against Arkansas in the past. Plus, the Razorbacks have their second-leading scorer, Isaiah Joe, back on the court. He was absent when Tennessee earned an 82-61 win over Arkansas in Knoxville earlier this month.
Unless the Vols can manage to go at least 2-2 down the stretch and win a couple games in the SEC Tournament, their hopes of making the NCAA Tournament are non-existent. As it stands right now, Tennessee isn’t in any of the 103 bracket projections listed on BracketMatrix.com.
So, if Tennessee doesn’t get to the NCAA Tournament, can they make it into the NIT?
For the Vols to get into the NIT, they have to at least finish the season above .500. That in itself is no guarantee given the difficulty of UT’s schedule to end the season, but let’s assume the Vols at least win two more games combined in the regular season and SEC Tournament. That would give them 17 wins and would ensure they would finish at least a game above .500 before the start of the NIT.
For a refresher for those who may not be up to date on their NIT knowledge: 32 teams that do not make the NCAA Tournament and qualify for the NIT are selected to participate in the tournament. All regular season conference champions that did not win their conference tournament automatically qualify for the National Invitation Tournament. The top seeds in the four brackets host games at their home arenas. The semifinals and championship game are played in Madison Square Garden in New York. This year, the NIT begins on March 17th and runs through April 2nd.
Believe it or not, there is actually NIT bracketology out there just like there is for the NCAA Tournament, and Tennessee is predicted to make the NIT by two main projections as of right now.
According to The Barking Crow, Tennessee is projected as a five-seed in the Stanford region of the NIT Tournament. The Vols are matched up with four-seed Oklahoma State in this projection, and they’re in the same region as one-seed Stanford, two-seed Purdue, three-seed Mississippi State, six-seed Stephen F. Austin, seven-seed South Dakota State, and eight-seed UC-Irvine.
Over on DRatings.com, the Vols are also projected to make the NIT as a five-seed. In that projection, USC, Richmond, Memphis, and Mississippi State are the projected one-seeds, and it’s possible that UT would be in the same region as Memphis given these projections. Nevada, St. Louis, and UNC-Greensboro are the other projected five-seeds on DRatings.com.
The last time Tennessee made the NIT was back in 2013, the second season of the Cuonzo Martin era. The Vols hosted Mercer in the first round and lost 75-67. Tennessee also made the NIT the previous year, hosting Savannah State in the first round and winning only to lose to MTSU in the second round.
Dating back to 1945, Tennessee has earned a bid to the NIT on 13 different occasions. The Vols have never won the tournament, but they finished in third place in both 1969 and in 1985.
Aside from Tennessee’s win over Savannah State in 2012, the Vols have gone one-and-done in the NIT in four of their last five appearances in the tournament. All-time, Tennessee is 13-13 in the NIT.