Tennessee at Missouri Preview

Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

We've had plenty of conversation this week on Tennessee's near misses, Cuonzo Martin's fate, and the ghost of Bruce Pearl. Now let's talk about how to win a basketball game.

The Vols are 15-9 (6-5) with an RPI of 50 and the ninth most difficult strength of schedule in the nation. With seven games to play Tennessee is still in position to dance, but chances to lose are becoming non-existent. Right ahead of the Vols in RPI is Missouri, 44th after Thursday's action. It's the first of two in the home stretch between the Vols and Tigers, Saturday in Columbia and then again in three weeks in Knoxville in the season finale.

Since field expansion to 68 no major conference team has ever been left out with a Top 50 RPI. But questions remain about the SEC's position as a major conference; the league is projected to finish with the 7th best conference RPI, behind the Atlantic 10 and just ahead of the American. Florida and Kentucky should be locked up tight, but from there it gets very questionable.

Ole Miss and LSU are both carrying RPIs in the 60s at the moment, and both have dates with Florida and Kentucky left on the table (the Rebels both in Oxford, the Tigers both on the road). However Missouri, like Tennessee, is through the teeth of their schedule already, and the only contender both teams have left is each other. Missouri just snapped a three game losing streak to Kentucky, Florida, and Ole Miss with a one point win over Arkansas.

Mizzou is a fan of the close game, with four of its seven losses coming by one possession or in overtime. The Tigers lead the SEC in effective field goal percentage and are third in the league in free throw rate as represented in the graph above, but they also give up more threes than any other team in the league.

This is a three man show, all 6'5" guards: Jabari Brown averages 20.3 points per game, Jordan Clarkson is at 19.2, Earnest Ross is at 14.2. No one else averages more than six points per game, and this team plays seven players a ton of minutes. So Tennessee's backcourt defenders will absolutely be challenged here, but as usual there's hay to be made in the interior.

A loss wouldn't completely shatter Tennessee's NCAA Tournament hopes, but I believe would put the Vols in must-win mode the rest of the way home. And with a schedule that gets a lot softer in the next two weeks before the Tigers come back to Knoxville, this is one more chance to get a quality road win and really boost your RPI. 4:00 PM Saturday, ESPN2. Go Vols.

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