Tennessee's best basketball was the perfect gift on senior day, and it's getting awfully familiar. In a game featuring two of everyone's Last Four In/First Four Out, the Vols rolled Missouri 72-45 in front of an excellent crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena. It is the Vols' fourth straight win, the third straight by at least today's margin of 27. Missouri (21-10, 9-9) isn't Virginia, but it was awfully nice for the Vols to get another really good win more recently than December. This wasn't Vanderbilt or Auburn, this was a team playing for their tournament lives, and the Vols turned out their lights.
I'm beginning to believe Tennessee's most important x-factor isn't necessarily limited to Antonio Barton (16 points, 4 of 7 from three). The Vols were once again at their best because everyone got involved, meaning UT's most important number wasn't threes made (only 7 of 24, but six in the first half will usually get the job done) but assists, of which the Vols had 18 supporting their 29 made baskets. Tennessee moves to 16-2 when getting 12 or more assists.
Tennessee finishes the regular season with 20 wins by an average of 21 points and none closer than seven. The Vols finish fourth in the SEC, earning the double bye to Friday when they'll face Auburn, South Carolina, or most likely Arkansas in what could be perceived as another bubble elimination game. The Vols are sitting at 43 in the RPI tonight, and I feel very comfortable saying a win on Friday should be enough to finish off a tournament bid unless there's a lot of insanity with surprise conference tournament winners. Tennessee's RPI would easily survive a potential loss to #1 Florida on Saturday in Atlanta, where of course a win might help the Vols get out of Dayton in the First Four.
But the way the Vols are playing right now, why not just win the whole thing?
As of Saturday night the Vols are a staggering 12th in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's ratings. In the last two weeks the Vols haven't just gotten Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes at their best, and haven't just gotten hot shooting from Barton and contributions from the bench. If you believe Cuonzo Martin, it's Tennessee's defense that has really helped this team turn the corner, and the numbers back him up.
Jabari Brown was the SEC's leading scorer. Josh Richardson held him to 1 for 10 today, and the Tigers shot 31.9% from the floor. Auburn's Chris Denson met the same fate, 1 of 10 on Wednesday night, and those Tigers shot 37.7%. Last Saturday Vanderbilt shot 22.4%, the best performance of the season from the Vol defense.
Right now we are a dangerous basketball team. We've hoped all year that Tennessee's best basketball could find its way to the floor more often, and believed all year that the Vols were capable of beating anyone when it showed up. When Tennessee and Cuonzo Martin had to have it in the last two weeks, our best basketball hasn't disappointed. The Vols now have seven wins against the RPI Top 100, six of them by at least 15 points. Tennessee is playing with real confidence on both ends of the floor and absolutely running away from people.
There's a chance to see what our best basketball can really do if we show up for Saturday's assumed date with Florida. To do that, the Vols need one more win, one more game for Cuonzo Martin to put a lot of conversations to bed and the Tennessee program to move forward. But Cuonzo has his guys playing so well, the larger conversation is changing from survive to advance. Florida is clearly the best team in this league, but right now there's no one else you'd rather be than Tennessee. The bubble is full of teams moving in all directions, but only the Vols have won four straight by an average of 25 points. There's peaking at the right time, and then there's this.
So yeah, I wish we'd won more earlier, I wish we could go to Atlanta more sure, I wish we were completely clear of Dayton and higher up the chart. And I wish we didn't need one more win to really feel safe. But whether this team needed its back against the wall or its coach on the hot seat or whatever, right now just put them in the bracket, and I feel like they've got a shot against anybody.
What a strange, frustrating, and suddenly exciting basketball season it's been. And my hope is, we're a long way from over.