Here comes trouble.
First of all, how much fun is it to be able to write/read this post with a straight face?
Our longtime readers are familiar with my work as Chief of the Head to Head Police Department in our football blogpoll, and I don't plan to betray my "whole body of work" bias today. The NCAA Tournament shouldn't give at-large bids to the 37 teams that played the best in February, and Tennessee's argument can't just be, "...so hot right now."
Thankfully, we're a little deeper than that.
The facts: Tennessee is 18-13, but 17-13 in the eyes of the selection committee because the win over D2 Chaminade won't count. At 10-6 in the SEC, the Vols finish second in the league behind only 16-0 Kentucky. As of Sunday evening, Tennessee's RPI is 75; the Vols are 54 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings and 60 in ESPN's BPI ratings.
Argue for or against RPI all you want, but the fact remains no team with an RPI of 70+ has made the NCAA Tournament since the current formula came into play in 2004. It's the sort of simple test - "Is their RPI above 70?" - that can quickly eliminate a team from further conversation. Since the one thing Tennessee can control is their performance in New Orleans, you want the Vols to have the best chance to improve their fate with a win. That means you absolutely want Ole Miss (RPI 57) to beat Auburn (140), and you absolutely want to see Vanderbilt (26) and not Mississippi State (64) or Georgia (112) on Saturday. In any other year, you might be okay with taking an easier path to Sunday...but as we all assume Kentucky will be waiting there, it's hard to realistically say, "Well let's just win the tournament and not worry about it." As long as the Vols get Ole Miss and then Vanderbilt, Tennessee's RPI would go up from 75 even with a loss to the Commodores on Saturday...but would it crack the Top 70? I'm not sure. However, going through Ole Miss and Vanderbilt and simply playing Kentucky would guarantee UT's RPI to clear 70 by a mile. When people say the Vols just need to get to Sunday, it's not a random guess: if you want to make the RPI math work, beating Ole Miss and Vandy and playing Kentucky, regardless of Sunday's outcome, would do it.
So the first assumption to make is this: Tennessee has to win on Friday. Losing to Ole Miss or Auburn would not only hurt UT's RPI, but it would derail all of the momentum that bracketologists and talking heads are using to push the Vols right now. If this hot streak ends right away in New Orleans, so will UT's tournament chances. But with a win on Friday, especially if it's over Ole Miss, Tennessee will earn the right to be seriously considered no matter what they do on Saturday. It might still take a win against whoever we see there, I'm not sure...but with a win on Friday to keep momentum alive, I think the following arguments will be extremely valid no matter what happens next.
Here are the arguments for Tennessee to earn an at-large bid, in order of importance:
The Jarnell Stokes Factor
Since our Size 20 freshman put on a Tennessee uniform, the Vols are 10-5. And since that run started with a home loss to #1 Kentucky by three points - as close as any SEC team has played them all season - and an overtime loss at Georgia, it's more favorable to say that the Vols are 10-3 since putting Jarnell Stokes in the starting lineup.
If you've watched us play, you know Stokes hasn't been the sole reason for this turnaround. Sure, we like his 9.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, and we love his future. But it also probably helps Tennessee's cause to note that we really track the turnaround to the first game of SEC play, a 67-56 beatdown of then-#14 Florida, a game we won without Stokes.
This team is playing this way because of its commitment to Cuonzo Martin's way of defense first. But Stokes was an incredible addition that also made Tennessee a much stronger offensive team with he and Jeronne Maymon on the block together.
Tennessee's three losses since Stokes entered the starting lineup: at Kentucky, at Vanderbilt, at Alabama, all tournament teams. But Tennessee's wins haven't been lucky: the Vols beat defending National Champion UConn 60-57 on January 21, and their nine SEC wins that followed have been by an average of 10.6 points. That's included three road wins at then-#7 Florida, at South Carolina, and at LSU where no SEC team but Kentucky had won all year.
There is a reverse precedent here: in 2003, a 17-11 (9-7) Tennessee team was left home on Selection Sunday, in part because guard Jon Higgins had just been kicked off the team for academic reasons. The selection committee chose to consider whether a Tennessee team without Jon Higgins was tournament worthy, and their answer was probably the right one. So the hope would be that this year they strongly consider how tournament worthy a Tennessee team with Jarnell Stokes is. You don't have to throw the whole body of work out to do that, but you do have to consider what this team has become and is right now with Stokes' presence.
With plenty of teams struggling to stay on or playing their way off the bubble, isn't it nice to have a ballclub that's playing their absolute best basketball of the year right now, winners of eight of their last nine? Again: you don't put Tennessee in because they're hot. You put Tennessee in because with Jarnell Stokes, this is without question one of the best 68 teams in the nation.
10-6 is not always created equal
Three SEC teams with 10+ conference wins have been left out of the NCAA Tournament: Auburn and South Carolina at 10-6 in 2009, Alabama at 12-4 last year. But Tennessee's 10-6 this year is a much stronger record than what any of those teams was able to do.
This year the SEC is the fourth strongest conference in college basketball according to RPI at .5675. Last year the SEC was just sixth in that ranking at .5530. And in 2009 the league was also sixth at .5537. It's not just Kentucky at the top: this year's SEC is a tougher league than the ones that saw 10+ win teams get left out to dry.
Tennessee's number is also more impressive because the Vols have played the old SEC East rotation. Last year Alabama went 12-4 on the strength of an 8-2 run against the inferior SEC West, which put no teams in the NCAA Tournament. It was the same story for Auburn in 2009, which went 10-6 on 8-2 against the SEC West and 2-4 against the SEC East; the only West team to make the field that year was Mississippi State via the SEC Tournament title. South Carolina gave it away at the end in 2009, losing four of their final seven and three of their last four to play their way out of the dance.
Tennessee has one bad conference loss: at Georgia in overtime in Jarnell Stokes' second game. The other SEC losses: at Mississippi State on the final possession without Stokes, Kentucky twice, at Vanderbilt, and at Alabama. The Vols didn't just sweep Florida, they dominated them twice. Add in the split with Vanderbilt, the road win at LSU, and the way the Vols flat out dominated Ole Miss and Arkansas, and this team has a strong SEC resume in a year where the conference has been stronger than we've seen in recent years.
The Vols aren't the champion of a weaker division and didn't bolster their record by only beating the league's worst teams. This is the legit #2 team in a tougher SEC - can the tournament really leave out the second best team in the fourth best conference?
Tennessee scheduled like a tournament team, again
Here's one of the biggest problems with RPI, and the biggest reason Tennessee's is as low as it is: the Vols aren't getting punished so much for losing to Oakland, Charleston, or even Austin Peay (though that one didn't help, for sure). Tennessee's RPI has taken a beating because they happened to play The Citadel (4-24 - RPI 324), Louisiana Monroe (3-25 - RPI 315), and in-state foe Chattanooga in a down year (8-21, RPI 307). Tennessee won those three games by a combined 67 points. But that doesn't matter in RPI.
Austin Peay is the worst loss by far, with the Govs currently hanging out at 193. But Austin Peay was picked to win the OVC, not be 11-20. The Vols did what almost no other major conference team would do in playing home-and-home games with Oakland and Charleston, who both beat the Vols and then struggled to worse-than-average seasons. On top of that, you can in no way criticize Tennessee's schedule when it included Duke, Memphis twice, Pittsburgh, and UConn. This was just the wrong year to play Pitt and UConn in terms of RPI.
Tennessee's RPI isn't so low because they Vols didn't schedule up. This was a Bruce Pearl schedule, which means it was built to maximize RPI and designed to have the Vols play anyone, anywhere. Sometimes your schedule looks better in November than in March, it happens. But our RPI isn't low because we took the easy way out in scheduling; it was simply the perfect storm outside the league of marquee opponents having down years, tough road games at mid-majors to honor contracts, and our few cupcakes being especially soft.
Look at other rating systems
The RPI isn't our friend for once, but other systems think more highly of the Vols. Tennessee is 54th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings - ten spots higher than the Vols were last season - and 60th in BPI. Pomeroy's ratings are no guarantee: last year Wichita State and Virginia Tech got left out of the field at 26 and 34 in KenPom, respectively. But right now, it gives a much better picture of how good Tennessee's entire body of work really is.
Tennessee doesn't play until 7:30 PM ET on Friday night in the SEC Tournament. That means we get to spend the rest of this week cheering against other teams on the bubble: the more of them go down, the more impressive Tennessee's winning streak is going to look.
Using the Bracket Matrix, which had the Vols in the Next Four Out group on Sunday (joined by Chris Dobbertean at SB Nation; Joe Lunardi is feeling good and has the Vols as the first team out), here are 17 teams to keep an eye on this week, ranked from highest projected seeds in the matrix (starting at 11) to lowest on the bubble. Thanks to Caban for helping us get a jump start on this:
- West Virginia - 19-12 (9-9) - RPI 45 - vs UConn/DePaul winner, Wed 12:00 PM ET
- UConn - 18-12 (8-10) - RPI 34 - vs DePaul, Tue 12:00 PM ET (their wins help our RPI though)
- Washington - 21-9 (14-4) - RPI 56 - vs Oregon State/Washington State winner, Thu 3:00 PM ET
- BYU - 23-8 (13-5) - RPI 46 - season complete
- Texas - 19-12 (9-9) - RPI 53 - vs Iowa State, Thu 9:30 PM ET
- Mississippi State - 21-10 (8-8) - RPI 65 - vs Georgia, Thu 9:30 PM ET
- Colorado State - 19-10 (8-6) - RPI 22 - vs TCU, Thu 5:30 PM ET
- South Florida - 19-12 (12-6) - RPI 47 - vs Villanova/Rutgers winner, Thu 9:00 PM ET
- Xavier - 19-11 (10-6) - RPI 56 - vs Dayton/George Washington winner, Fri 9:00 PM ET
- Northwestern - 18-12 (8-10) - RPI 49 - vs Illinois, Thu 530 PM ET
- Arizona - 21-10 (12-6) - RPI 78 - vs Colorado/USC winner, Thu 5:30 PM ET
- VCU - 27-6 (15-3) - RPI 50 - vs Drexel (CAA Finals), Mon 7:00 PM ET
- Miami - 18-11 (9-7) - RPI 55 - vs Georgia Tech, Thu 9:00 PM ET
- Oregon - 22-8 (13-5) - RPI 51 - vs UCLA/Utah winner, Thu 11:30 PM ET
- Dayton - 19-11 (9-7) - RPI 72 - vs George Washington, Tue 7:00 PM ET
- St. Joseph's - 19-12 (9-7) - RPI 58 - vs Charlotte, Tue 7:00 PM ET
- NC State - 20-11 (9-7) - RPI 54 - vs Boston College, Thu 2:00 PM ET
Counting the Vols, that's 18 teams playing for 10 spots (barring any bid stealers in conference tournaments), with the last four of those spots being the First Four games in Dayton on Tuesday of tournament week. And with the exception of Xavier, every one of them will play at least one game before we will. It would be great to see that number trimmed way down by the time we take the floor.
For us, it all starts with winning on Friday. Do that, and our argument is solid against what will hopefully be a smaller bubble, none among them having a winning streak the likes of ours. It's been an incredible ride for this basketball team...but it's not over yet.