After taking care of Auburn Wednesday night the Vols moved to 11-5 (2-1) at the halfway point of their season. Tennessee currently sits at 53 the RPI, a number that would find the Vols once again in the thick of the bubble conversation if this was Selection Sunday.
Between now and then the Vols have 15 games left (plus the SEC Tournament), but no stretch will be more important than the next 15 days.
On the other side of the next 15 days are the all-important Last 10 Games. And Tennessee's schedule sets up for another late season run; Cuonzo Martin's Vols have finished the regular season with eight wins in nine games the last two years, and another strong finish could be in the cards now. In the Last 10 Games the Vols have two dates with Missouri and a home game against the Gators. But the other seven games are all against RPI 100+ foes. There's a chance to build serious momentum, but few opportunities for repair if the resume is already badly damaged.
So the most important portion of the season will unfold over the next fifteen days: at Kentucky, vs Arkansas, at Florida, vs Ole Miss, at Alabama.
The Crimson Tide currently sit just outside the RPI Top 100 at 105 but will certainly present a big challenge in Tuscaloosa. And the other four games represent the best of the SEC, including road games at the league's two best teams in Lexington and Gainesville.
Despite frustration at the halfway point with a number of unlikely losses, including UTEP, NC State, and Texas A&M, Tennessee is still fully in control of its own destiny. To this point, the Vols don't need to go 5-0 or anything like that in the next five games to make the NCAA Tournament. But assuming Tennessee can take care of most of its business, as it should, in the Last 10 Games, how they do in these next five games will make the difference between a season that can still be about the SEC Championship and a tournament seed built to help the Vols advance, and another year on the bubble.
If the Vols go at least 3-2 in these next five games to get to 14-7 (5-3) with additional quality wins, even a 7-3 finish in the Last 10 should be enough to get them on the dance floor. The numbers from RPI Forecast aren't exact but are more reliable every day as the season goes on; a 21-10 (12-6) finish is projected to send the Vols to the SEC Tournament with an RPI in the Top 40, which should get the job done.
A 2-3 run in the next five games would require a stronger finish down the stretch and unless the Vols sweep Missouri and beat Florida in Knoxville, you're likely going to spend the rest of the season crunching numbers on the bubble. It wouldn't be the end of the world, but would likely take Tennessee out of the SEC Championship conversation and leave them still in search of quality wins.
But if the Vols go 1-4 in this difficult stretch (or 0-5), this conversation is going to Bruce Pearl to stay. 1-4 would require the exact same type of close we've seen the last two years and then some additional work in the SEC Tournament. We already know there are no guarantees there. And as we've seen this week, beating teams like Auburn - which unlike the last two years is most of who the Vols play down the stretch - doesn't really do Cuonzo any favors. The only way to win back the fanbase is to win games that count, and none will count more than these next five.
It starts in Rupp Arena, where the Vols have won four times ever, against a Kentucky team coming off a stunning overtime loss at Arkansas. The unfortunate truth about playing the Cats: many of the things the Vols are really good at, Kentucky is great at.
The Vols are second in the conference (and third in the nation) in scoring possessions; Kentucky is first. We're second in the conference (and seventh in the nation) in offensive rebounding percentage; Kentucky is first by a mile. We're tied for first in points per possession.
The Vols do have some advantages, most notably in assist/turnover ratio. But the Vols have more Sweet 16 appearances (4) than wins in Rupp (1) in this millennium.
It means, like Wichita State, that losing isn't the worst thing ever and Cuonzo Martin shouldn't be judged more harshly based on Saturday's result. It would also mean that if the Vols can steal a win, it should be tremendously celebrated and allow us to return to the good conversations we were almost back to before Texas A&M spoiled our fun. If the Vols beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena, you can take Tennessee seriously as a threat to win the league and make some noise in March. If we lose, we come back home and need to make sure we get Arkansas and move forward from there.
The whole story won't be written tomorrow. But the tone and trajectory of its overall narrative will be determined in the next fifteen days. The conversation is either the bracket, the bubble, or Bruce Pearl on the other side of this run. For Cuonzo Martin and the Vols, the time is now.