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