Vols Still Have “Realistic Pathway” to NCAA Tournament

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    (Photo via Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics)

    Tennessee pulled off a stunning 81-73 victory in Rupp Arena over No. 6 Kentucky on Tuesday night, marking only the sixth time since Rupp Arena opened in 1976 that the Vols were able to beat the Wildcats there.

    That win, coupled with Tennessee’s victory over Florida at home on Saturday, has suddenly rekindled the Vols’ hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.

    With the victory, Tennessee improved to 17-13 overall and 9-8 in SEC play and vaulted back into the top 60 in the Ken Pomeroy rankings, coming in at No. 58. That win also gave the Vols their second “Quadrant 1” victory of the season. In the NET rankings — the ratings the NCAA Tournament selection committee uses to determine how good a team is — a Quadrant 1 win results when a team beats another team ranked 1-30 in the NET at home, beats a team ranked 1-75 in the NET on the road, or beats a team ranked 1-50 in the NET on a neutral site.

    Tennessee was just 1-9 in Quad 1 match-ups prior to Tuesday. Now, the Vols have their second Quad 1 win and are 6-3 in Quad 2 games.

    The Vols’ sudden resurgence to close out the regular season has cleared a path to the NCAA Tournament for Tennessee, something that seemed inconceivable just a week ago after UT’s 86-69 loss to Arkansas on the road.

    Now, according to two college basketball analysts, Tennessee’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament are still alive.

    Chris Dortch, the editor and publisher of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, said in a tweet on Wednesday morning that Tennessee “still has a realistic pathway to the NCAA Tournament” after their win over Kentucky. He states that the Vols would need to beat No. 17 Auburn in Knoxville on Saturday and get a couple victories in the SEC Tournament to make it happen, but it’s still possible. Dortch also cites “Joe Brackets,” the nickname of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, as having confirmed what Dortch tweeted out.

    Before Tuesday’s win, the Vols had just a 21.7 percent shot of making the NCAA Tournament according to TeamRankings.com. After the victory over No. 6 Kentucky, Tennessee’s chances of earning a tournament berth sky-rocketed to 49.7 percent.

    Team Rankings has the Vols’ most likely seed in the NCAA Tournament as a 12-seed should they make it in. Tennessee has a 23.1 percent shot of getting that seed and a 13.3 percent chance of getting an 11-seed.

    So, what are the odds of Tennessee doing what Dortch laid out and beating Auburn and picking up a few wins in the SEC Tournament?

    According to ESPN’s match-up predictor, Tennessee has a 51.9 percent chance of upsetting No. 17 Auburn in Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday. On Team Rankings, the Vols are given a 51.5 percent shot of beating the Tigers.

    Tennessee’s most likely seed for the SEC Tournament is the seven-seed. Team Rankings gives the Vols a 62.9 percent shot of earning the seven-seed in the tournament, a 22 percent chance of earning the eight-seed, a 12.2 percent chance of earning the six-seed, and just a 2.9 percent shot of earning the five-seed.

    The Vols currently sit at 9-8 in conference play and stand alone in seventh place in the SEC standings. To move up, Tennessee would need to win on Saturday and hope either South Carolina or Mississippi State lose on Saturday. The Gamecocks are playing on the road at Vanderbilt while Mississippi State plays at home against Ole Miss. Florida losing on the road at Georgia on Wednesday and at home against Kentucky on Saturday would also move the Vols up a spot.

    Should the Vols stay put and earn the seven-seed in the SEC Tournament, they would be matched up with the 10-seed in the second round on Thursday, March 12th. If UT wins that game, they would face the two-seed the next day on Friday. Right now, Arkansas or Missouri project to be the 10-seed, and Auburn projects to be the two-seed.

    As of right now, Team Rankings gives Tennessee just a 4.2 percent chance of winning the SEC Tournament. Those are just the eighth-best odds among the 14 SEC teams.

    Tennessee has a lot of work to do if they want to make it into the NCAA Tournament, but there’s still a way to get in. If nothing else, Tuesday’s win should’ve at least cemented the Vols’ bid of making it to the NIT, which would still be a nice postseason opportunity for the young Vols.



    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.