What Would It Take For Tennessee To Make The NCAA Tournament?

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Vols missed their chances to secure a signature non-conference win. What will they need going forward to get back on the dance floor?

So the way this has gone the last two years is we start slow and give up on the NCAA Tournament, then get unbelievably hot down the stretch and crunch the numbers late to see if we can squeeze in. This year the Vols' 6-4 start may not get quite as bad as what we've seen the last two seasons when Tennessee was 10-12 in 2012 and 11-10 in 2013 before they hit their season-ending stride. But the expectations and the temperature are different this year, both driving the conversation one of two ways: the NCAA Tournament, or a conversation about a different coach - Bruce Pearl now, probably a list of someone elses later.

In an attempt to drive the conversation back the other more preferable way, we're going to the math much earlier. The numbers in this post come from this story back on March 5, updated to include the 2013 tournament.

First a word about RPI. This is not a conversation about whether or not RPI is an effective metric to judge basketball teams. This is a conversation about RPI because the selection committee will have several conversations about RPI.

Our thanks to two sites for most of the data: Real Time RPI for the historical numbers, and RPI Forecast for current projections. The projections are exactly that, and right now they're quite volatile because they assume no upsets. But the closer we get to the finish line the more stable they'll become, so RPI Forecast is a great site to check back with.

RPI HISTORY

Here's the most basic point: since the tournament expanded to 68 teams no major conference team has been left out with an RPI better than 50. Get in the RPI Top 50, you're in. Here's how close it's been for others involved since the formula was changed to put more weight on home losses and road wins:

2013

  • Last at-large: California (54)
  • Highest left out: Louisiana Tech (53)
  • Highest major left out: Kentucky (57) - Vols were 59

2012

  • Last at-large: Virginia (53)
  • Highest left-out: Marshall (44)
  • Highest major left out: West Virginia (57)
2011
  • Last at-large: USC (67)
  • Highest left-out: Harvard (35)
  • Highest major left out: Boston College (58)
2010
  • Last at-large: Minnesota (62)
  • Highest left-out: Rhode Island (40)
  • Highest major left out: Mississippi State (55)
2009
  • Last at-large: Arizona (62)
  • Highest left-out: San Diego State (34)
  • Highest major left out: Florida (54)
2008
  • Last at-large: Oregon (61)
  • Highest left-out: Dayton (30)
  • Highest major left out: Ole Miss (39)
2007
  • Last at-large: Stanford (67)
  • Highest left-out: Air Force (29)
  • Highest major left out: Florida State (41)
2006
  • Last at-large: Seton Hall (58)
  • Highest left-out: Hofstra (22)
  • Highest major left out: Cincinnati (40)
And then here's a more detailed look at how major conference teams with RPI 40-69 have fared during that time:

2013 IN: 43 Pittsburgh, 45 Iowa State, 50 Cincinnati, 52 Villanova, 54 California
2013 OUT: 49 UConn (ineligible), 57 Kentucky, 59 Tennessee, 60 Alabama

2012 IN: 43 Cincinnati, 47 Purdue, 49 Kansas State, 50 NC State, 51 Texas, 52 South Florida, 53 Virginia
2012 OUT: 57 West Virginia, 60 Miami, 61 Ole Miss, 63 Oregon, 65 Northwestern, 68 Seton Hall

2011 IN: 44 UCLA, 45 Michigan State, 47 Georgia, 48 Illinois, 52 Michigan, 55 Florida State, 57 Clemson, 64 Marquette, 67 USC
2011 OUT: 58 Boston College, 61 Oklahoma State, 62 Virginia Tech, 65 Colorado

2010 IN: 42 Florida State, 44 Missouri, 49 Notre Dame, 50 Marquette, 56 Florida, 62 Minnesota
2010 OUT: 55 Mississippi State, 59 Virginia Tech, 60 Seton Hall, 61 Ole Miss, 63 Arizona State, 64 UConn, 65 Cincinnati

2009 IN: 41 Texas, 42 Minnesota, 44 Michigan, 45 Wisconsin, 55 Maryland, 60 Boston College, 62 Arizona
2009 OUT: 54 Florida, 56 Baylor, 57 South Carolina, 58 Georgetown, 61 Virginia Tech, 64 Auburn, 65 Miami

2008 IN: 42 Purdue, 43 Villanova, 44 Arizona, 47 Kansas State, 49 Baylor, 58 Kentucky, 61 Oregon
2008 OUT: 46 Ohio State, 53 Virginia Tech, 55 Florida, 56 Syracuse, 59 Florida State, 68 Georgia Tech, 69 Texas Tech (Ole Miss also out at 39, the only major conference team to be left out with an RPI better than 40 since the formula changed)

2007 IN: 40 USC, 44 Purdue, 47 Vanderbilt, 52 Georgia Tech, 53 Texas Tech, 55 Virginia
2007 OUT: 41 Florida State, 46 Clemson, 48 Alabama, 50 Syracuse, 51 Oklahoma State, 54 Michigan, 56 Kansas State, 57 West Virginia, 58 Georgia, 59 Ole Miss, 64 Mississippi State

2006 IN: 42 Arkansas, 44 Kentucky, 45 Texas A&M, 50 NC State, 55 California, 57 Alabama, 58 Seton Hall
2006 OUT: 40 Cincinnati, 47 Michigan, 51 Maryland, 59 Colorado, 64 South Carolina, 65 Florida State

So since 2006 among major conference at-large contenders:

  • 81.8% make the field with RPI 40-49 (27 of 33); 100% have made the field since expansion to 68
  • 47.7% make the field with RPI 50-59 (21 of 44); 71.4% have made the field since expansion to 68 (but the Vols were left out last year)
  • 21.4% make the field with RPI 60-69 (6 of 28); 18.1% (2 of 11) have made the field since expansion to 68
As the Vols found out last year, an RPI in the 50s will get you in the conversation, but there's no guarantee it gets you in. You want to feel secure, you need to be an RPI Top 50 team.

How can the Vols get there?

RPI PROJECTIONS

We turn back to RPI Forecast to see what the Vols would need to do to crack the RPI Top 50. Again, these numbers are a little squirrely right now but become more reliable each day.

Right now Tennessee has an RPI of 85 in their system. The Vols are projected to finish the season 19-12 (10-8), which would give the Vols an expected RPI of 66 going to the SEC Tournament. Not all records are created equal, obviously; there's a difference between 19-12 in a strong SEC and 19-12 in this SEC, and a difference between 19-12 with quality wins and upsets and 19-12 with just beating who you're supposed to beat.


  • 19-12 - 66
  • 20-11 - 50
  • 21-10 - 40
  • 22-9 - 32
  • 23-8 - 25
Again, these numbers are very fluid right now and don't take into account whatever might happen in the SEC Tournament. But I do think they can tell us a couple of things right away. One, the Vols absolutely have to finish above .500 in the SEC to even be considered. Two, for the Vols to be considered a lock, they'd have to lose as many games the rest of the season as they have already this year. That means a team currently playing .600 ball needs to start playing .800 ball.

Who will stand in Tennessee's way in the SEC, and where will opportunities arise?

SEC PROJECTIONS

Here are the projected final RPI numbers for the SEC this season:

  • Teams the Vols play twice: Florida 22, Missouri 47, Vanderbilt 111, Texas A&M 139, Auburn 212
  • Teams the Vols play at home: Arkansas 40, Ole Miss 62, Georgia 169, South Carolina 171
  • Teams the Vols play on the road: Kentucky 18, LSU 35, Alabama 87, Mississippi State 205
You can see the league beginning to take shape: Kentucky is young and we'll see how they grow, Florida and Missouri are who we thought they were, Ole Miss and Alabama are lurking. LSU and Arkansas are intriguing, both just two losses. Arkansas lost to Cal and #11 Gonzaga, both on neutral floors, and beat Minnesota and Clemson. LSU lost at RPI #1 UMass by two points and to Memphis on a neutral floor but beat Butler on a neutral floor. Obviously not everyone in the league can do well and I'm not sure the SEC is getting more than 4 teams on the dance floor. But you especially want to pull for the teams that we play twice, a group that includes Xavier.

Either way, there are some opportunity games for the Vols. You know the Florida and Missouri games will be big, and of course the date at Kentucky. But the league opener at LSU on January 7 also looms incredibly large right now. Remember, road wins count more. Tennessee didn't get a signature road win in the non-conference, so they'll have to find one in the SEC.

IN CONCLUSION...

It's not that Cuonzo Martin has to go 21-0 the rest of the way to keep his job. The Vols need to improve, plain and simple, and have to start winning at a much better rate. But there's still enough grace left in this season for Tennessee to make a run at it.

The Vols can get help by winning key SEC games and hoping opponents who have gotten off to strong starts - Wichita State (current RPI #9), Virginia (#60), Xavier (#65), NC State (#77) and Wake Forest (#83) - continue to play well in conference. Just because a game like Xavier, Wake, or possibly UVA weren't a huge win at the time doesn't mean they can't become better wins as the year goes on.

The Vols need to chase down the RPI Top 50, which looks like it will have to come on the plus side of 20 wins with some important ones along the way. But at this point, they're all important.

Can Tennessee win enough games to fight their way back onto the dance floor? It'll take another couple months to answer that question...but if this team can play to its potential, this season is still a long way from over.

We go again tonight against a Morehead State team that's capable of surprise, 8-5 on the year but competitive for much of the game at UCLA earlier this season (down 3 at the under 12). There's still enough basketball left for these Vols to save their season if they can find it within themselves.


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