Congrats to Missouri, who handled its business at home and moved one step closer to the NCAA Tournament in today's 75-70 victory. The Vols erased an early lead of 13 points and things changed hands several times until the final few minutes when, as was the case against Florida Tuesday night, we tightened up and let it get away. The Vols trailed 66-65 with the ball with less than four minutes to play. In the final 3:30 UT turned it over four times and made zero shots, getting all their remaining points at the line. Missouri got back-to-back clutch shots from Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson to turn a one point lead into five, and the Vols couldn't respond. Also a troubling note, one of several: Jarnell Stokes made a bucket early in the second half to move to 6 of 7 from the field. His shot at 17:45 was the last one he would get the rest of the game. That's poor coaching or poor execution, and if the execution is so poor as to not get your best big man a look for almost the entire second half, it's poor coaching to not correct the execution.
Two weeks ago this team was 14-7 with big wins still on the table and plenty of evidence that, even if Cuonzo Martin's third team hadn't met some of our preseason expectations, it was still clearly better than either of its predecessors. Now the Vols have lost three of four, missed both of their chances to score important RPI-moving wins this week by failing to execute in the final four minutes, and stands at 15-10 (6-6). Last year's team after 25 games? 15-10 (7-6). Difference is, that team was in the middle of a six game winning streak during this point of the season, including a pair of victories over ranked teams. This year's team is in a very dangerous place right now.
It's dangerous for Cuonzo Martin's employment, but you knew that already. There's still basketball left to be played and this team could still make the NCAA Tournament, but today's loss probably eliminated any reasonable argument that this team hasn't underachieved, even if it wins out. The Vols could certainly still dance and then who knows, but winning in March requires a consistency we simply haven't seen all year from this team.
I certainly don't speak for every Tennessee fan, and I'm an idiot optimist who holds on to hope with everything he has. I was one of the last ones off the Dooleywagon. So here's the position fans like me find ourselves in: you feel like Cuonzo hasn't done enough to prove he's the best choice going forward, especially with no tangible improvement 25 games into this season and a huge void in the roster coming next season. But you also believe that Dave Hart isn't going to fire a head coach who makes the NCAA Tournament, and if the Vols make the NCAA Tournament you want them to win. It's a very frustrating place to be in, and that's just one particular mindset. There are several other mindsets that have already abandoned the hope that Cuonzo might be able to still move this program forward. Behind the voices that scream for Bruce Pearl are more reasonable voices that still speak for change.
Here's what I do know: the Vols slipped to 54 in RPI after the loss, but will be favored in their final six games. If the Vols win out to get to 21-10 (12-6), the RPI Wizard projects Tennessee to have an RPI of 37 going to the SEC Tournament. That dances.
It's not that there are any really big wins to get in those six games (vs Georgia, at Texas A&M, at Mississippi State, vs Vanderbilt, at Auburn, vs Missouri) , though Missouri may still look like a tournament team when they return to Knoxville in the season finale. Six straight wins wouldn't make national noise or really do anything other than create momentum. But in the numbers people on the selection committee value, winning out would give Tennessee the necessary math to dance. Once again: since field expansion no major conference team with an RPI of 50 or better has been left out. And 37 is better than 50 with plenty of room to spare.
I don't know what's going to happen to Cuonzo Martin right now, no matter what any of us think should happen. I do know Tennessee can still make the NCAA Tournament. And I do know for both, there is no margin for error left. The last two years this team saved its best basketball for that point, which came much earlier in the year. Cuonzo Martin loves doing things the hard way. So now with backs to the wall, one more time, can Tennessee deliver a win-out to get back on the dance floor?
I also know this: these things have a way of working themselves out. Support the team and its players, even if you've already given up on its head coach. If Cuonzo truly isn't the man for the job, I think you'll find the final damning evidence in the basketball left on our schedule. Maybe we'll get hot and get back to the tournament, maybe we'll stay hot there and advance, who knows. Right now all Tennessee can do is start winning, and that starts with the next one. We'll see what happens.