What's Next for Tennessee Basketball

USA TODAY Sports

Frustrated by close losses and inefficient play, a lighter load can still present meaningful opportunities for this Tennessee team.

(Snow Ice day woo!)

The Vols have lost five of their last six games, the lone win over a lowly Mississippi State team with the worst RPI in the SEC. If there's a silver lining to be found, it's that all five of UT's losses have been against RPI Top 50 teams, or at Rupp Arena where we never win anyway (Kentucky currently has an RPI of 60).

So I'm going to show you the math, and then I'm going to talk about why it doesn't matter right now.

Tennessee is 9-8 (1-4) with an RPI of 95. Here are the RPI rankings of the last at-large team selected in the NCAA Tournament in the last few years:

  • 2012: Virginia (53)
  • 2011: USC (67)
  • 2010: Minnesota (62)
  • 2009: Arizona (62)
  • 2008: Oregon (61)
  • 2007: Stanford (67)
  • 2006: Seton Hall (58)
It will always be fluid based on conference tournament upsets, but that's a fairly concise range for the "last team in" to be in over the last few years. According to the good folks at rpiforecast.com, Tennessee would need to finish the regular season with a record of 19-11 to have a projected RPI in that range (61.1 to be exact). With 13 games left to play the math is unreliable; past and future opponents could fall apart or could get hot and make wins worth more or less. One thing is absolutely sure: you want to pull hard for all Vol non-conference opponents every night, especially Wichita State.

It's probably not an exact enough science to say, "Can Tennessee finish 10-3 and get back on the bubble?" But the point remains: it would take a significant winning streak at this point to get Tennessee back in the conversation, let alone on the dance floor.

But, here's the good news:

  • January 26 vs Alabama
  • January 29 vs Vanderbilt
  • February 2 at Arkansas
  • February 6 vs Georgia
  • February 10 at South Carolina
  • February 13 at Vanderbilt
  • February 16 vs Kentucky
  • February 19 vs LSU
  • February 23 at Texas A&M
  • February 26 vs Florida
  • March 2 at Georgia
  • March 6 at Auburn
  • March 9 vs Missouri
Hard part's over, at least for now.

Tennessee will be favored in five of its next six games, the exception being at Arkansas next Saturday. And the challenge in Fayetteville will be no steeper than it was in Tuscaloosa, Lexington, or Oxford, all games the Vols had a chance to win and lost in the final five minutes. After that stretch, the Vols may be an underdog against Kentucky in Knoxville but I don't think any of us feel like that game isn't winnable.

And with the schedule saving the heavyweights, real (Florida) and perceived (Missouri), for last, and both in Knoxville, right now it's less about marquee wins and more about getting this thing moving in the right direction.

As was the case last season, Tennessee has to play well enough to win the games they should win to make the games they aren't supposed to win matter later on. The Vols rode that wave last season to a meaningful date with Vanderbilt in the season finale, then won it to put themselves squarely on a bubble that burst in the SEC Tournament.

I've said all along that without Maymon, I can live with being on the bubble and having it burst; I don't think making this season a pass/fail based on whether the Vols are the last team in or the first team out without their leader is a fair test. But I do think there's a big difference in being in the conversation and struggling to make the NIT (or missing it altogether). It reminds me of the SEC East race in football: even after the Vols lose to Florida as they tend to do in September, it's important to feel like you're still in the hunt for both players and fans. The football is still meaningful as long as you're still playing for something that matters.

Tennessee's postseason hopes aren't dead, but they're not good either. And there's a ton of basketball left to be played, which is bad if you're trying to count to 19 wins from here. But it's also good, because the schedule is about to get easier and there's still enough time to get on a run.

But that has to start right now. Tomorrow is a dangerous turnaround game against an Alabama team feeling very good about themselves and their own dance card after beating Kentucky this week. Tennessee absolutely cannot feel sorry for itself. We have to come to play and we have to win; the rest of the season can still count for something real, but that has to start right now.

And until we see better basketball and the ability to win close games on the road, winning 10 of the next 13 is based more in dream than reality.

So, how can Tennessee get better? What's most important for the Vols to do to improve?

At this point there are a few givens with this team, both positive and negative: the Vols are going to play great defense, and when they do they'll give themselves a chance to win every night. Likewise, the offense kind of is what it is at this point; I'm not expecting salvation from Stokes or the second worst three point shooting team in the league to suddenly start dropping bombs. And the Vols play like they agree: free throw attempts continue to vastly outweigh threes, as should be the case with this team. It's who we are, for better and for worse.

What can change and evolve with this team at this point?

1. Stop turning it over so dadgum much

It's incredibly frustrating, I'm sure for the staff and players more than anyone, to see a great defensive effort negated by an abundance of turnovers. The Vols had blackjack last night against Ole Miss, 13 at Kentucky, 16 with three backbreakers in the final minutes at Alabama, and on it goes. The season average is 12, and the Vols did survive 17 against Wichita thanks to great free throw shooting. But our margin for error is so small offensively to begin with, and transition opportunities take away our great defensive advantage. If playing great defense keeps us competitive every night, turning it over so much kills us every night.

It's on everyone, even Jordan McRae who basically is our offense right now. The refs were travel-happy last night, but 9 turnovers is way too much even for a guy who gets 26 points. As a team the Vols have a negative assist-turnover ratio (10-12). Our offense simply isn't going to create that many assists, but when we get north of our average in turnovers (averaging right at 14 per game in league play), we really hurt ourselves.

2. Make more free throws

The Vols shoot 66.1% from the line, 11th best in the SEC. This is especially frustrating because Tennessee relies on the free throw line to get so many of its points; the Vols still lead the SEC in free throw rate and are 11th nationally in that stat.

It sticks out like a sore thumb in Tennessee's losses; either the Vols didn't get to the line enough, or didn't make enough of them:

  • Oklahoma State: 14 of 22 (63.6%)
  • Georgetown: 3 of 11 (27.3%)
  • Virginia: 5 of 8 (62.5%)
  • Memphis: 14 of 23 (60.9%)
  • Ole Miss: 17 of 26 (65.4%)
  • Alabama: 8 of 16 (50.0%)
  • Kentucky: 11 of 17 (64.7%)
  • Ole Miss: 17 of 27 (63.0%)
In eight losses, the Vols have shot 89 of 150 (59.3%). In nine wins, the Vols have shot 162 of 230 (70.4%). The Vols also get to the line more in wins (25.5) than losses (18.8). Again, it's not exact science: the Vols beat Wichita State shooting 29 of 36 and beat Xavier shooting 10 of 16. But man, it helps.

3. Finish Strong

Only so many close games you can lose before you start to get a complex about it. So far this has only been an issue on the road; we struggled late against Memphis at home but were coming back from down 21 in the first place. The Vols did close out Wichita perfectly and will have a chance to do the same when the big SEC games come back to Knoxville. But this team has to remember from last year that it knows how to win in the last few minutes, knew how to close out the Gators twice, and can do the same this season. If Tennessee finds a way to beat Alabama and Vanderbilt in Knoxville, we need to be able to go to Arkansas and get our first road win of the year.

We know what this team can and can't do at this point in a general sense. But what it can do is still good enough to give itself a chance to win every night. If the Vols do a better job protecting the basketball and even a slightly better job at the free throw line, close losses turn into close wins. The only way to learn how to close games out at the end is to do it. And the only way to move this thing forward is to win.

The season isn't over. But if the season is still going to matter, the Vols have to start winning, now. We're good enough to be right there every night, and can push over the hump with continued growth.

That has to start tomorrow against Alabama.

Go Vols.

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