The Tennessee Vols were playing some of the best basketball in the SEC, until the last two games.
Tennessee (14-12, 6-7 SEC) has lost two games in a row, against Georgia and Kentucky, after it entered February winning six of the last eight games. Vol fans hope the last two games haven’t ruined NCAA Tournament hopes. Those hopes have taken a hit, but haven’t disappeared.
With five games remaining, here’s how the Vols need to close to make the Tournament Selection Committee take notice.
February 18 – Home vs Missouri
If the Tigers beat the Vols, it’s over. Missouri has the worst record in all of the SEC (7-18, 2-11), and it has the worst RPI in the league (245). Tennessee needs a “bounce back” game after the last two losses, and the Tigers can be that opponent.
However, Mizzou has been playing better as of late. It’s won two of its last four games, both at home. And, the Tigers have a pair of three-point losses against Texas A&M and Alabama in that stretch. Tennessee has to snap out of its funk and take care of business at home on Saturday.
February 22 – Home vs Vanderbilt
The ‘Dores will be motivated for this rematch in Knoxville after the Vols stole the first matchup away on the Nashville floor. Vandy (12-13, 5-7 SEC) is such a tricky team to read. In Bryce Drew’s first season, they’ve been teeter-tottering over and under the .500 mark for months. Vandy will have bright spurts like winning convincingly at Texas A&M and at Arkansas. Yet, then turnaround and get blown out by the aforementioned Missouri Tigers by 20 points.
Tennessee won by 12 in Nashville behind a 23 point performance by freshman Jordan Bone. He was an assassin late in the game, hitting and assisting on multiple three-point daggers. It was by far the best game of his young career.
(he made this) pic.twitter.com/U3098NHZjR
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) January 15, 2017
Defensively, the Vols held the SEC’s best three-point shooting team to only six made threes. While the ‘Dores still shot 46-percent from deep, the fact they only attempted 14 for the game made the difference. Tennessee has to guard well around the arc, unlike how it did this week allowing Kentucky to shoot 11-25.
February 25 – at No. 21 South Carolina
If Tennessee can beat the Gamecocks on the road, it would be a fantastic boost to the resume, but not a “must win” for the Vols to get in the Tournament. South Carolina (20-6, 10-3 SEC) looked poised to be Kentucky’s only real threat in the SEC, however its lost its last two of three in league play. Carolina’s 21 RPI will drop after this week’s home loss to Arkansas, which gave the Razorback’s their first road win vs a ranked team in three years.
Tennessee lost at home to South Carolina 70-60 the game before the Vols beat Vanderbilt in Nashville, which sparked the turnaround. The Gamecocks travel to Vandy and Florida in the next two games before hosting the Vols. SEC Player of the Year candidate Sindarius Thornwell has averaged 33 points in the last three games. He’s the one to contain, if Tennessee wants an upset.
March 1 – at LSU
If Missouri is the worst team in the SEC, then LSU is the most disappointing. Head Coach Johnnie Jones could be on his way out if the Tigers (9-16, 1-12 SEC) don’t finish the season on a high note. At this point, LSU has lost 12 SEC games in a row and play Alabama, Auburn and Georgia before facing Tennessee to open March.
The Tigers can score the ball, averaging over 74 points per game. But, their defense is atrocious, giving up 82 points per game which is 339th in the country.
A loss to LSU would have the same affect on Tennessee’s tournament hopes as a lost to Missouri: killer.
March 4 – Home vs Alabama
If this scenario plays out, the Vols could pick up their 18th win of the season by beating Alabama on Senior Day. Who knows, maybe it could be the 19th win. But, at minimum, ending the regular season 18-13 would be enough to have Tennessee on the edge of the bubble.
Beating the Tide has been easier said than done as of late even in basketball. Bama has won six of the last eight meetings. Alabama (15-10, 8-5 SEC) will be fighting for its own tournament lives, as well. Although, Bama has been inconsistent from week to week. It’s never won more than two games in a row since conference play began.
Tennessee’s offense is better than Alabama’s and the Vols would want this game to be played at a quicker pace that what the Crimson Tide is used to.
TOUGH finish 💪🏾💪🏾💪🏾 pic.twitter.com/kmvcQeglsp
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) January 25, 2017
20 OVERALL WINS
Overall, a 20-win season is a good benchmark to tell if a college basketball team has had a successful season. With Tennessee’s above average RPI, getting to 20 wins would like really impressive to the selection committee.
The Vols need to have a strong showing in the SEC Tournament even if they finish on a five game winning streak. The committee needs as much evidence that the Vols deserve a spot in the tournament as possible. I think, a minimum of two SEC Tournament wins would have the Vols in a good spot.
The only guarantee the Vols have of getting into the Big Dance is by winning the SEC Tournament. And Tennessee hasn’t done that since 1979.