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Where Tennessee Basketball Stands Halfway Through Conference Slate

Play Wisconsin Vs. Illinois To The Under (140.0)

With the calendar flipped from January to February, Tennessee basketball is officially halfway through the conference slate.

With nine regular season games left, Tennessee is 15-6 (6-3 SEC) and is winners of its last four conference games. The Vols are still unbeaten (12-0) at Thompson-Boling Arena this season while winning games on the road has been a major hurdle.

Tennessee’s 6-3 record is good for third in the SEC — though Arkansas can tie them with a win at Georgia Wednesday night.

While the 6-3 start in SEC play is strong — especially considering the schedule — winning the SEC is already out of the question.

Even if Tennessee were to win out and finish 15-3 in SEC play, top-ranked Auburn would have to lose two games on top of the schools’ meeting in Knoxville later this month. The Tigers are 9-0 in SEC play and have a weak remaining schedule. Road trips to Fayetteville, Starkville and Knoxville are the hardest games left on Auburn’s schedule.

The Vols also sit behind rival Kentucky in the standings. The Wildcats are playing fantastic basketball after humiliating Tennessee in Lexington last month.

Kentucky’s only loss in its last seven games was a narrow defeat at Auburn while John Calipari’s team put the nation on notice Saturday, dominating Kansas, 80-62, in Lawrence.

Unlike Auburn, the Wildcats aren’t untouchable in the SEC standings. Kentucky is 6-2 with a home matchup against Vanderbilt Wednesday night. Still, the Vols have a chance for revenge against their border rival later this month and still have two matchups with Alabama and Florida, a road trip to Arkansas and a home matchup with LSU still on the schedule.

Right now, there’s a major gap in level of play between Auburn and Kentucky and the rest of the SEC. Auburn and Kentucky both rank in the top five while Tennessee and LSU — losers of five of their last six — are the only other SEC teams in the top 25.

The path to Tennessee finishing in the top four of the conference for the fourth time in five years is clear, and right now Rick Barnes’ seventh team in Knoxville looks like the conference’s third best.

Let’s take a look at the rest of Tennessee’s schedule. The Vols’ knocked out three of their four hardest road trips in the first three weeks of January, losing at Alabama, LSU and Kentucky.

The two best teams Tennessee will face the rest of the season come to Knoxville and there’s four games that will define the second half of the Vols’ conference season.

First is next week’s road trip to Starkville. Tennessee faces an NCAA Tournament bubble team on the road who is looking for a marquee win to help bolster its resume. KenPom projects a one-point Tennessee victory, and this team has proven winning on the road will not come easy.

A week later, Tennessee has a chance at revenge against bitter rival Kentucky. The fifth-ranked Wildcats are playing fantastic, but Tennessee has shown it can beat anyone at home. KenPom projects a one-point loss.

Tennessee heads back on the road on Feb. 19 when they travel to Fayetteville. Arkansas’ struggled for much of this season but seems to have turned a corner and Bud Walton Arena is never an easy place to win. KenPom projects a two-point Tennessee victory.

Finally, Tennessee hosts old friend Bruce Pearl and Auburn on the last Saturday in February. The Tigers have dominated Tennessee as of late, winning six straight in the series. Still, see the above statement about the Vols being capable of beating anyone at home. KenPom projects a one-point Auburn victory.

KenPom gives Tennessee between a 46% and 58% chance of winning every single one of those games. The next lowest percentage chance of a win is 76% this Saturday at South Carolina.

The Vols have to take care of business and not lose one they’re supposed to win — much easier said than done in basketball — but those four games will define Tennessee’s regular season.

If Tennessee splits the foursome and does what it needs to in the other five games, they’ll post a 13-5 SEC record. That was the Vols’ conference record the year they won the SEC regular season championship in 2017-18.

The 2021-22 Tennessee basketball team is full of inconsistencies, but the Vols are starting to hit their stride and a manageable February has them eying another high NCAA Tournament seed.

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