Tennessee’s men’s basketball team picked up arguably their biggest win of the 2019-20 season on Saturday when the Vols held on for a 63-58 victory against Florida. The win improved Tennessee’s record to 16-13 overall, and it ensured UT would finish no worse than .500 on the season even if they lose their last two regular season games and lose their opening game in the SEC Tournament.
With that win over Florida, are the Vols close to sniffing the bubble for the NCAA Tournament again?
The Vols haven’t had many big time wins this season, and their resume for the tournament isn’t the most stellar. UT has a chance to further improve their resume with two games against top-30 teams in the NET rankings — the rankings the NCAA Tournament selection committee use to determine the strength of a team. Tennessee travels to Lexington to take on Kentucky (14th in the NET) and will host Auburn (27th in the NET) to close out the regular season. If Tennessee were to win either of those games, they would qualify as Quadrant 1 wins, the highest level of win possible in the NET rankings. Quadrant 1 wins are victories at home over teams ranked 1-30 in the NET, road victories over teams ranked 1-75 in the NET, and neutral site victories over teams ranked 1-50 in the NET.
Right now, Tennessee has just one Quadrant 1 win in 10 tries. The Vols are 1-9 in Quadrant 1 opportunities and 6-3 in Quadrant 2 opportunities.
The good news for the Vols is they don’t have many bad losses. Their worst loss is a Quadrant 3 loss, and UT is 9-1 in Quadrant 3 and 4 match-ups.
Tennessee is currently ranked 69th in the NET rankings, behind several other teams on the NCAAT bubble currently. Unless the Vols can find a way to win at least one of their final two regular season games or go on a run in the SEC Tournament — or even win the conference tournament — their prospects of making the NCAA Tournament are extremely slim.
According to TeamRankings.com, the Vols have just a 21.7 percent chance of making the NCAA Tournament. If they do, their most likely seed is a 12-seed per those projections, with a 10.5 percent shot of earning that berth.
Team Rankings projects the Vols’ most likely record to be 17-14 to end the regular season, giving UT a 49.1 percent chance of earning that outcome. Tennessee is basically given a 50/50 shot at defeating Auburn at home, as Team Rankings gives UT a 49.6 percent chance at beating the Tigers. Tennessee only has a 21.3 percent shot at defeating Kentucky in Lexington.
So barring a very strong finish to the regular season and a good run in the SEC Tournament, the Vols are likely to go to 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 three main projections as of right now.
At Mid Major Madness, Tennessee is projected as a four-seed in the NIT, and they’re matched up with five-seed Syracuse. The Vols are in the same region as one-seed Richmond, two-seed Clemson, three-seed Alabama, six-seed VCU, seven-seed Boise State, and eight-seed Harvard.
Over on DRatings.com, the Vols are also projected as a four-seed. SMU, TCU, and St. Louis are also projected as four-seeds on DRatings.
On The Barking Crow, Tennessee is projected to be a five-seed in the NIT. Those predictions place the Vols in the Cincinnati region where the Bearcats are the one-seed. The Vols would face four-seed Notre Dame in those projections. That region also features two-seed Utah State, three-seed Minnesota, six-seed North Dakota State, seven-seed Hofstra, and eight-seed Siena.
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.