It doesn't quite all come down to this, because there's always the SEC Tournament. But unless Tennessee wants to win that bad boy for the first time in many of our lifetimes (1979), the Vols have to beat Missouri in the battle of everyone's bracket to give themselves a chance to make the NCAA Tournament.
It's not just the head-to-head factor, though the Vols are the last team in Thursday night's Bracket Matrix and Missouri among the first four out. For Tennessee to ensure itself of the kind of resume that historically dances every time since field expansion to 68, they need a Top 50 RPI. The number is 47 right now, and to keep it there on Selection Sunday the Vols have to beat Missouri, then win one game in the SEC Tournament.
Beating Missouri will earn Tennessee a double bye in Atlanta, finishing third or fourth depending on Georgia's outcome at LSU. That would put Tennessee through to Friday and keep the Vols clear of Florida or Kentucky until Saturday. A win on Friday should keep the Vols in the Top 50 of the RPI even if they lost on Saturday. There are all kinds of possibilities for Friday's opponent if the Vols can get to third, while finishing fourth could put the Vols on a collision course with Arkansas in another bubble elimination game. Finishing third is also a better deal because it puts you in Kentucky's bracket instead of Florida's, and while I think we'd like another shot at both of them, only playing Kentucky once leaves me extra eager to see them again.
But first thing's first: Missouri.
Round one was February 15, the great Jarnell Stokes disappearing act. The big fella was 6 of 7 from the floor but didn't get a shot in the last 17:45. Tennessee didn't make a shot in the final 3:30 and Missouri held on, stealing Jeronne Maymon's inbounds pass in the final seconds and hitting two free throws to win 75-70. Jordan McRae had 31 but the Vols were just 4 of 19 from three.
Jabari Brown had 24 in the first game, and he continues to lead the way in this three guard attack with Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross. Missouri has won just two road games in conference play, at Auburn and surprisingly at Arkansas on January 28. Since then they've lost at Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama, and Georgia and it's gotten progressively worse. The Tigers played with the Gators for most of that game and fell by three in Oxford, but Bama beat them by seven and Georgia won by 15.
In Knoxville it's senior day for names that have meant a whole lot to this program in Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon, and a name that means a lot to this team's best basketball in Antonio Barton. I hope D'Montre Edwards gets some minutes as well. And I hope we get a good crowd to support them and this team. They've been maddening at times, but part of their madness is the dominance of their best basketball, and we've seen it a lot in the last seven days. Missouri is a stiffer challenge, no doubt, but if it shows up again the Vols can get one of their biggest wins of the year and go to Atlanta in really good shape. Lose, and you'll have to win the SEC Tournament.
The season builds to its most meaningful game yet. Let's see if the Vols' best basketball shows up on the year's most important date.
4:00 PM Saturday, ESPN. Go Vols.