Tennessee Basketball: Last 10 Games

Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

The Vols are closer to the dance floor than they've ever been under Cuonzo Martin, but there's still work to do.

February is here, and after tomorrow's national signing day college basketball will take center stage at the perfect time:  ten games to go, bubble watches and bracketologies aplenty.  Cuonzo Martin's first two squads got hot with nine games to go, both finishing on an 8-1 tear, so we'll try not to jinx this year's squad at Vanderbilt tomorrow night and hope they can just stay on the streak that's included two beatdowns of Ole Miss and Alabama.  But this year's team is already in much better shape than either of its two predecessors, who were 10-12 and 11-10 before those finishes and weren't even in bracket conversations until those runs were three or four games in.

This year Tennessee enters the last 10 games appearing in 89.5% of the Bracket Matrix projections, currently averaging out as a 10 seed putting some distance between themselves at the cut line.  The Vols have an RPI of 41, which should be healthy enough to dance as long as Tennessee avoids disaster the rest of the way in.

These last 10 games are front-loaded, starting with a trip to Memorial Gym tomorrow night to face a Vanderbilt squad that's won three straight.  The depth-depleted Dores at 12-8 (4-4) and an RPI of 74 would need a finish like the one UT's had the last two years to get in the bubble conversation, but they're off to a good start.  After Vanderbilt the Vols get a brief respite with South Carolina (1-7 SEC) in Knoxville on Saturday, then #3 Florida comes to Knoxville for the return match a week from tonight.  The Vols follow that up with a trip to Columbia, Missouri to face what could be another tournament team.

After that though, things get easier, at least on paper.  From February 18-March 5 the Vols are home against Georgia, at Texas A&M, at Mississippi State, home against Vanderbilt, and at Auburn.  Outside of Vanderbilt, that's four of the five worst teams in the league in RPI.  There are no guarantees - A&M already won in Knoxville - but Tennessee will be a big favorite in every one of those games.  The Vols then close the regular season with Missouri in Knoxville on March 8.

RPI Forecast likes the Vols to finish 21-10 (12-6).  That number projects to have an RPI of 40 headed to the SEC Tournament, which should be enough to keep the Vols in the Top 50 even if they lose in Atlanta.  But not all 21-10's are created equal.  If 7-3 is a reasonable finish for the Vols in these last 10 games, how does it need to look within reason?

  • No bad losses at home (3-0 vs South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt)
  • No losses to bad teams on the road (3-0 at Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Auburn)
  • Win at least one of at Vanderbilt, vs Missouri
Those are eight games the Vols will be favored in, and while our resume could withstand a loss at Vanderbilt or at home against Missouri (though you hate to lose the season finale because the selection committee is still made up of human beings), Tennessee doesn't need to flirt with disaster by falling at home or on the road to sub-par teams.

If Tennessee goes 7-1 in those eight games, I think we're locked up by the time the SEC Tournament gets here.  That still leaves room for improvement in two opportunity games next week, vs Florida and at Missouri.  A win over Florida would give the Vols another elite win; I say another because right now Virginia is 16th in RPI and 8th in KenPom and the Vols housed them by 35.  A win at Missouri isn't as sexy as beating Top 5 Florida, but it would give a big boost to UT's RPI as well.

The Vols do need one or both of those wins to move themselves up the ladder in the bracket and give themselves a better chance of advancing.  And there are still numbers to support the idea that this is a good basketball team, beyond the way it's played the last two games.  Tennessee is 22nd in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, four spots higher than the 2010 Elite Eight squad finished and better than all but two of Bruce Pearl's squads ('06 and '08).  For all our complaints about offense, the Vols are currently 14th nationally in Pomeroy's adjusted offensive rankings.  Cuonzo has made adjustments on both ends of the floor, inserting Darius Thompson in the starting lineup and employing a 1-3-1 zone in the second half against Alabama to run away with it.

Inside those numbers Tennessee is fifth nationally in scoring possession percentage, second best in the SEC in free throw percentage (believe it or not, 71.9%), second in the SEC in points per possession, and the fourth best rebounding team in the nation.  These are numbers that dance for days.

The Vols will have to beat Florida to make people believe it, but once you get on the dance floor it doesn't matter what people believe, only how you play, and the Vols are in good shape to get there this time.  But there's still work to do, starting tomorrow night against one of our biggest rivals in their ridiculous gym.  The Vols are in position to make good things happen if they take care of business the way Cuonzo's teams have done in the past down the stretch.
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