Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Standing between the team Tennessee is and the team it wants to be is a win at Arkansas.
Maybe the experts, the numbers, and even some of us are right about this Tennessee Basketball team. RPI projections have the Vols currently slated to finish 17-13 (9-9). 6-5 the rest of the way, dead even in conference play, a fitting fate for a team that plays close every night. That number sends the Vols hoping for the best in the SEC Tournament and then probably finding their way back to the NIT. And perhaps without Jeronne Maymon and now perhaps without Trae Golden for an extended stretch, that's not the worst outcome at all.
But I'm telling you, in the tournament math that counts, right now Tennessee is closer than you think.
I'm not suggesting RPI is a good metric for good basketball, and I'm not even necessarily suggesting Tennessee is better than what your eyes have told you so far. The Vols are 78 in RPI but 97 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, and are found in exactly zero entries in the current Bracket Matrix. Tennessee is 11-8 (3-4). You are what your record says you are.
But UT's 78 RPI ranking currently comes with two wins over Top 50 foes thanks to a UMass win over LaSalle this week. The Vols need to be north of 70 to even consider the bubble when the season is over, but again, the big fish are still out there with dates against Kentucky, Florida, and Missouri still to come. There are other games left Tennessee flat out should win, but Tennessee's overall strength of schedule will stay high all season. But how many will they get?
We know the Vols will defend well enough to win every night and know they love close games. Tennessee may even play well enough to get one of the big fish in Knoxville later this year.
But right now, the biggest thing Tennessee can do to show growth is win tomorrow.
Arkansas exists somewhere between the big fish and the "easy" wins, which with this Tennessee team may still be in name only. The Hogs aren't better than Tennessee, but they aren't clearly worse either. They just missed in Tuscaloosa 59-56 last night (sound familiar?) dropping them to 12-8 (3-4).
The records are about the same, but the styles of play couldn't be much different: Arkansas is the second fastest team in the SEC at 73 possessions per game, they are the third best shooting team in the conference at 45.3% (though not so hot from three at 30.6%, just slightly better than we are), and Arkansas leads the SEC in assist/turnover ratio at 1.39. Their offense and their pace comes from their press; the Hogs average 9.5 steals per game, which also leads the SEC.
The flip side of this equation is Arkansas is terrible on the glass, allowing more rebounds per game than any team in the league. If you break their press, their defense can be exploited; Arkansas allows opponents to shoot 42.5% from the floor.
Can Tennessee break their press with Trae Golden doubtful? It's a big afternoon for Brandon Lopez, who will see lots of minutes if Golden doesn't go. The Vols don't need Lopez to score, but they do need him to protect the basketball.
Arkansas is a two man scoring machine: guard B.J. Young averages 16.3 per game, and 6'7" forward Marshawn Powell is right behind him at 15.6. After that, the next leading scorer is Mardracus Wade at 6.8 per game. The Hogs will throw ten or eleven men at the Vols, always staying fresh.
Tennessee's ability to dictate pace and slow the game down will be absolutely critical, and protecting the basketball is the key component here: the Vol defense can't play like the Vol defense if Arkansas is constantly forcing turnovers and getting in transition. If Tennessee doesn't turn it over and can set up defensively, I think the Vols can really frustrate an Arkansas team that's now lost three of their last four. But if Arkansas imposes its pace on Tennessee on both ends, the Vols will have a very hard time winning this thing. A slower pace will help Jarnell Stokes get more involved as well, and the way he's playing right now we want as much of that as possible.
And then it becomes a game of who else? Who else besides Stokes and Jordan McRae will step up? It was Skylar McBee Tuesday night against Vanderbilt. The Vols will never score a ton of points, and thus they usually only need one more to join the flurry. Who will it be tomorrow?
The key to the run last season was consistency in the midst of the grind: Tennessee won all the games it was supposed to and gave itself a chance in the others. This team may be playing just well enough to win right now, but it also has to come to Fayetteville with more confidence than in past weeks against a more vulnerable opponent. Two wins have turned this thing back in the right direction. But if this Tennessee team wants to take a real step toward something bigger this season, they have to keep winning. And in a quiet but certain way, this win would mean more than most right now.
It would be Tennessee's first road win of the season, it would keep momentum growing, and it would get the Vols back to .500 in the SEC. But more than that, it would move Tennessee's still-faint NCAA Tournament hopes one step closer to reality, and it would be a very big step. Arkansas can't get you on the dance floor, but it can give you a chance to play your way there later.
Is Tennessee going to be an average team that flirts with victory and disaster every night, plays the .500 ball that naturally leads to, and finds itself in the NIT? Or can this Tennessee team still be something more?
The difference between who we are and who we want to be starts with winning games like this one. It may not feel big, but for the narrative of this team and this season, it's incredibly important. The wins later would get Tennessee back in the tournament. But to get back on the bubble in the first place, you need wins exactly like this one.
Saturday, 4:00 PM ET, ESPN. Let's see if we're ready to be something more.