They just keep getting bigger.
The most important game Tennessee can win the rest of the regular season is this one. No pressure.
Vanderbilt has a higher RPI (27), but Alabama (37) is the last chance for the Vols to earn a quality road win (though LSU, currently 66th, wouldn't hurt). The conversations we're not supposed to be having about the NCAA Tournament? Win tomorrow, and bracketologists outside Knoxville might do a little talking of their own.
Tennessee is on a roll: four straight wins, three blowouts and a W in Gainesville. Alabama is a mystery, with the status of JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell - their two leading scorers - still up in the air. Playing at home against Florida with Trevor Releford and Andrew Steele back, the Tide were even at halftime but fell apart in the second half when they discovered one of Tennessee's old problems: a flat-line at the worst possible time, nine minutes without a made shot as the Gators pulled away for a nine point win. That leaves Alabama at 16-9 but just 5-6 in the SEC, now behind the Vols in the standings. And since Vanderbilt just tattooed Ole Miss 102-76 - in Oxford, no less, almost certainly crushing their NCAA hopes - Tennessee now finds themselves sharing fourth place in the league with only Mississippi State.
For all this talk about the Vols being the best non-Kentucky team in the league right now - which, in fairness, should be "best non-Kentucky/Vanderbilt team in the league right now", especially after last night - Tennessee has a chance to at least separate themselves from the middle tier of the league. They put Arkansas behind them Wednesday, and now can do the same to Alabama and Ole Miss.
To take the next step, Tennessee will have to beat the team that most closely resembles the Vols.
Last year, Alabama started 5-6 with losses to Seton Hall, Iowa, Purdue, Providence, Oklahoma State, and, my favorite, the St. Peter's Peacocks. But then, as if from nowhere, the Tide caught fire: a 14-2 run that included an 11-2 start in SEC play. Down the stretch, they faltered - consecutive losses at Ole Miss and at Florida - before a pair of wins over Georgia that most believed were NCAA play-in games. But, in fact, they weren't - the selection committee ignored Bama's wins over UGA in the regular season finale and the second round of the SEC Tournament, and took the Dawgs but rejected the Tide. Why, you ask? The biggest difference between the two was RPI, for better or worse: Georgia was 9-7 in the SEC but 47th in RPI. Alabama finished 12-4 in the SEC, but their RPI was 80 thanks to a SOS rating of 114.
I'm not sure if this is an accurate way to look at it or not, but it was as if the selection committee had already decided on Alabama before they even played Georgia, because beating them twice made no difference. The Tide were more or less too far off the radar in a down year in the SEC, and one speed bump was enough to do them in.
The Vols, right now, are still off the radar. The other teams in that middle tier have fallen off in the last week - Arkansas can't win on the road, and Ole Miss just got destroyed at home in their chance for a quality win - and LSU is still below .500 in the league and 67th in RPI.
But Alabama, despite their suspensions, is still in the conversation, and almost certainly in the tournament if it started today. If Tennessee wants to join them, or perhaps even replace them, there's only one way to do it: win in Tuscaloosa.
There are 345 teams in division one college basketball. Alabama is 339th in three point percentage, a robust 27.2% from the arc. Tony Mitchell is one of only three players on the team that shoots over 30%, and he could be out. So the Vols have a little more room on the defensive end, where they've been busting their butts locking down three point shooters for the past week. Uncertainty remains because we're not sure who's going to play, and the Tide have only had a couple games to sort out the difference. Freshman Rodney Cooper had 28 in Baton Rouge with the Tide playing shorthanded, but had just five against the Gators on 2 of 9 shooting.
Alabama only averages 65.5 points per game, but during the suspensions they scored just 58 on LSU and 52 on Florida. Where the Tide do excel is, like us, on the defensive end: 12th nationally in defensive efficiency (Vols are 42nd), 4th nationally in effective FG% allowed (Vols are just 102nd). Tennessee has been red hot from three recently, but the Tide are 5th nationally in three point percentage allowed, giving up just 27.6% per game from the arc. That's really impressive.
So as always, the biggest key for Tennessee remains the mental component: will the Vols be disciplined enough to get and take good shots against a great defensive team? Even without Mitchell and Green, Alabama held Florida to 40.4% from the field, 28.6% from the arc, and just 61 points overall. It was still enough to win, and for the Vols - a worse offensive team but definitely a better defensive team than Florida - it should take even fewer points to get it done. If this one ended in the 40s it wouldn't surprise me, and if it does people shouldn't fret about losing touch with our recent string of scoring 75+. Any win by any means.
Tennessee is playing the brand of basketball Alabama played last year, and has positioned themselves for the same late season run. But like the Tide last year, the Vols can't afford any late season slip ups, especially not in a game that can help their RPI more than any other left on the schedule. Tennessee has to win enough games to get themselves back in the conversation - and today could do it - but will also have to keep winning to stay there. I still believe the Vols have their NCAA fate in their own hands - and more importantly, I think they believe it too - but they have to win today. Can they play Alabama's game better than Alabama in Tuscaloosa? If so, they still have a chance to avoid Alabama's fate from last season.