Tennessee basketball’s chances of an at-large bid to make the NCAA Tournament came to a screeching halt on Saturday afternoon in Thompson-Boling Arena when UT lost to Auburn 85-63 to close out the regular season.
The Vols were fresh off back-to-back monumental wins over arch-rivals Florida and Kentucky. With the wins, Tennessee was slowly creeping back on to the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. With a win over Auburn, the Vols would have traveled to the SEC Tournament looking to pick up two wins in hopes of making the big dance.
Samir Doughty had other plans for the Vols.
The Auburn guard made eight three-pointers to stick a dagger right in the heart of Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament hopes, propelling the Tigers to a big victory. Now, the Vols’ only hopes of making the tourney is to win the SEC Tournament title this week.
Even if the Vols can’t pull off what feels like a miracle and win the SEC Tournament, they’ll still play in the postseason following the trip to Nashville.
Tennessee finished the regular season with a 17-14 record, meaning the worst they could finish after the SEC Tournament would be 17-15. With that above .500 record and a handful of quality wins, the Vols would qualify for a bid to the National Invitational Tournament as long as there’s enough at-large bids to go around.
Would Tennessee accept a berth to the NIT, though?
“Yeah, no doubt,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes responded when asked whether the Vols would accept an NIT bid on Saturday. “I think this team needs to play as much as we possibly can.”
The first round of the NIT is held on March 17-18. 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 NIT. 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.
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.
Before the Vols likely turn their attention to the NIT, they’ll take a stab at trying to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning the SEC Tournament
“It is a new season for everybody,” Barnes said. “We have seen things happen. All we have left is that postseason. That is our only chance. Are we capable of beating anybody in the league? We are. But it’s going to take a team effort.”
Tennessee is the eight-seed in this year’s SEC Tourney. The Vols will face nine-seed Alabama (16-14, 8-10 SEC) on Thursday at 1 p.m. ET in Nashville. The winner of that game will face one-seed Kentucky in the quarterfinals on Friday at 1 p.m. ET
The Vols and Tide faced off once this season, and Tennessee won in dramatic fashion on the road in Tuscaloosa. UT trailed by as much as 15 against Alabama but roared back in the second half to take a 54-53 lead with 8:22 to go. The two teams would battle back-and-forth for the remainder of the game until Yves Pons hit a pair of free throws with four seconds remaining to put the Vols up 69-65. A Kira Lewis made three-pointer at the buzzer made the final score 69-68.
Alabama enters Thursday’s match-up having lost two-straight games to end the regular season, and they lost eight of their final 12 games to close out the regular season. The Tide were 12-7 after a 77-74 victory over Kansas State in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, but they lost three-straight immediately after and never strung together two-straight wins for the remainder of the season.
Lamonte Turner’s advice to his teammates? Just go out there and have fun
“Just go out there and play loose, have fun, and just play with each other and play hard,” Turner said following Saturday’s Senior Day festivities. “I feel like if you do that, you give yourself a chance to win the tournament.”