48 hours after a stunning home loss to Texas A&M the Tennessee Basketball narrative has shifted back toward the bubble and Bruce Pearl. It is both unfortunate and unrealistic, but especially among casual fans it seems this is just how it's going to be until the Vols string together enough wins to lock in the NCAA Tournament and/or stop losing home games to RPI 100+ teams.
The Pearl comparisons aren't doing Cuonzo any favors right now, of course, but I feel this is an important point about the habits of his teams. In Pearl's first five years the Vols lost eight home games, seven of them to NCAA Tournament teams. In the tumultuous 2010-11 season the Vols lost another eight home games, but five of those were also to NCAA Tournament teams.
In Cuonzo's first three seasons, the Vols have lost eight home games. But so far only three of those were to NCAA Tournament teams, and it will remain three unless you believe in NC State or Texas A&M. Home losses to Austin Peay in 2012 and Georgia in 2013 really hurt Tennessee's RPI and ended up costing the Vols come tournament time.
Here's the raw data on home losses since Pearl took over:
The loss to A&M sent the Vols spiraling down to 55 in RPI; the Vols are now projected to finish 20-11 with an RPI of 45 heading to the SEC Tournament according to RPI Forecast, a number that would keep Tennessee on the bubble. The Vols were among the Last Four In in the most recent Bracket Matrix, released before the loss to A&M, so there too our home sweet home on the bubble seems pretty clear.
Ken Pomeroy's numbers paint a brighter picture. The Vols are still 20th in his rankings, just behind Kentucky (14) and Florida (17) in the SEC. And that's the annoying thing about our situation. Could we chalk the A&M game up to seven offensive fouls called on us in the second half and some bad luck at the end of the game? Maybe. But this program's frustrating habit of losing home games to teams that don't qualify for the NCAA Tournament happens too often for us to simply chalk a home loss to Texas A&M up to bad luck and officiating, even though we all love to blame the refs. Cuonzo's Vols have taken down a host of good teams in Thompson-Boling Arena, and this year the Vols have already slayed the road win demon to open SEC play. But Tennessee's inability to take care of business against below average teams at home every year continues to really hurt them come tournament time.
These Vols don't have to go undefeated the rest of the way to get in. But they now have two bad home losses on the resume to go with a bad neutral loss to UTEP. Tennessee has to avoid giving away home games against inferior competition if it wants the big wins along the way to really count come March. The big home games Cuonzo has won against Florida, UConn, Vanderbilt, Missouri, and Kentucky have all been really great in the moment, but so far they've never ended up meaning anything because we never quite dance. So in order for Saturday's game at Kentucky to really mean something (and to be a real opportunity to quiet this Bruce Pearl stuff again and put the casual fans back in the fold), Tennessee has to beat Auburn in Knoxville Wednesday night. We can still afford losses, but we're just about full up on bad ones. Cuonzo's teams have proven themselves capable of beating just about anyone. But we've got to stop losing to just about anyone two or three times along the way if we want to dance.
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