February 25, 2012; Columbia, SC, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Cuonzo Martin speaks to his team during a timeout in the second half against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Colonial-Life Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-US PRESSWIRE
So we start with the most important piece of information: Beat LSU.
All of these scenarios involve Tennessee winning out. We'll preview the Tigers tomorrow and Vanderbilt for the weekend, but if Tennessee wants to go anywhere this postseason, they need to take care of business this week. The Vols are 16-13, but just 15-13 in the eyes of both selection committees because the win over D-2 Chaminade won't count. That means not only must the Vols keep winning to improve their NCAA Tournament chances (which really means to improve their SEC Tournament chances), but the NIT is no lock at this point - if the Vols lose both games this week, they would have to win one game in New Orleans just to stay above .500 without the Chaminade win.
We explored the history of NIT at-large bids back on February 4, but a quick recap: last year the highest RPI to make the NIT was Nebraska at 89; in 2009 with a larger at-large field available Washington State made the field with an RPI of 92. The Vols are right there, at 91 as of this evening. A split this week would keep them in the neighborhood.
But remember: any regular season conference champion who fails to win their conference tournament and does not earn an NCAA at-large bid gets an automatic NIT bid. As conference tournaments begin this week, the more favorites win, the better the odds for Tennessee. That means you need to cheer for the following teams this week:
America East: Stony Brook
Atlantic Sun: Belmont
Big Sky: Winner of Weber State/Montana tonight
Big South: UNC-Asheville
Missouri Valley: Wichita State
OVC: Murray State
Summit: Oral Roberts
Sun Belt: MTSU
West Coast: St. Mary's
There will be another list like this for next week's conference tournaments, but the less chaos the better. Right now the Bracket Matrix has Tennessee projected as a 7 seed in the NIT - in the field, but at risk with chaos in conference tournaments and/or losses this week. And another point: the Vols may not be able to play their way into the NCAA Tournament, but they could play their way into a home game in the NIT.
As for the big dance, here are some reality check numbers. Nobody makes the NCAA Tournament with an RPI worse than 70; the last few years the "last team in" has had an RPI between 62-68. The Vols are at 91, but a road win over LSU (68) and a home win over Vanderbilt (23) will certainly help that.
The good folks at RPI Forecast project the Vols to have an RPI of 75 if they win both games this week. If the Vols do go 2-0 this week, it will get them back in the national conversation and on the national radar. But that number alone wouldn't be enough - the Vols would still have to do more in the SEC Tournament. And there comes a point, if it's not here already, where we have to think about simply being too late - the selection committee is made of human beings like you and me who sometimes pay less attention to conference tournaments than they should. Alabama is an excellent case from last year; the Tide were 12-4 in the SEC but had an RPI of 80, and the selection committee ignored their consecutive wins over Georgia at the end of the regular season and in the SEC Tournament, putting the Dawgs in and the Tide out.
The only scenario I can envision where the Vols might have a high enough RPI to earn an at-large bid without winning the conference tournament would be to win out this week and then win their way to Kentucky - ideally on Sunday but perhaps on Saturday - and then lose. Simply playing the Wildcats would help Tennessee's RPI. And if it was on Sunday, that means Tennessee almost certainly went through at least one Top 50 team to get there. That sort of run could leave the Vols with an RPI in the Top 50...but again, would it be too late even if the numbers made sense? Same thing could happen if the Vols happened to beat Kentucky on Saturday but lost in the tournament finals.
This is all speculation, which means the most important tournament to worry about right now is in New Orleans. If the Vols win out they'll finish no worse than fifth in the league, and there is still an easy scenario for Tennessee to finish second (Vols win out, Florida loses at Vanderbilt and vs Kentucky). The first round bye is huge because then you only need three wins in three days, and second or third would be even better to stay away from UK for as long as possible.
Every team is still alive right now, of course, but the Vols are much more alive than, say, South Carolina. These are very, very meaningful games this week - lose tomorrow night and the NIT becomes a question mark and we'll need four wins to shock the world in New Orleans. But win, and not only do we fans get to continue to discuss the fantasy, but the team will in reality put themselves in a tremendous position to do well in New Orleans...and with a win tomorrow night, that Vanderbilt game is going to feel h-u-g-e on Saturday...which will, in fact, make it huge.
It's so great just to be here in Cuonzo's first year, discussing what it would take to keep playing. But the answer remains this same in this and every year: keep finding a way to win.
That journey continues tomorrow night in Baton Rouge. Go Vols.
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