We've been here before.
Two years ago, the Vols had the same 12-7 record thru 19 games that this year's squad has earned. Both the '09 Vols and this year's version struggled with inconsistent play, and while the '11 Vols have two more impressive wins and two more frustrating losses, for the most part the story has been the same: an inability to win close games against above average teams.
At face value, it's a much easier case to make for the '09 Vols, whose first seven losses came to Gonzaga (twice), Memphis, at Temple, at Kansas, Kentucky in the Jodie Meeks Game, and eventual SEC Champion LSU. But perhaps we've been too busy pointing fingers at ourselves to notice how well some of our previous competition has been playing.
The Vols are number one in strength of schedule for a reason. Aside from the Big East games and the SEC grind, take a look at what our other non-conference opponents have done:
- Missouri State and VCU, Tennessee's NIT opponents, are a combined 31-9, and 36th & 55th in the RPI, respectively. Right now, these are nice wins. Also, Belmont is a very respectable 73rd in the RPI, and we beat them twice.
- Along with UConn, three of UT's other non-conference losses are to RPI Top 100 teams: Oakland (59), Charleston (80), and USC (93). (Charlotte, if you're curious, is 186.) It certainly doesn't help that all three of those were in Knoxville, but still...
So, we're okay. Not great, but okay. You'll find the Vols anywhere from 7-10 in most bracket projections - if the East teams continue to knock each other off, there may not be another chance for a marquee victory in the regular season, but there will be plenty of chances to score quality wins down the stretch.
But while we won't see any such chances in the next two weeks, seven losses in the first nineteen games also mean the Vols are out of opportunities to give wins away. 4-0 is the expectation over the next 14 days, and if the Vols want to accomplish their goals, they shouldn't settle for anything less.
While it's probably true that every fanbase feels like it gets shafted by the selection committee in terms of seeding, we remember the last two Selection Sundays quite well, as the Vols ended up two lines lower than we all thought they'd realistically go both times. Bruce Pearl mentioned before that he thought the Vols were still being punished for the way they played as a 2 seed in his very first year...but if that's the case, we should also be rewarded for the way we played as a 6 seed last year.
Here's Tennessee's tournament performance under Pearl in relation to their seeding:
- 2006: -2 (2 seed, Second Round)
- 2007: +1 (5 seed, Sweet 16)
- 2008: -1 (2 seed, Sweet 16)
- 2009: Even (9 seed, First Round)
- 2010: +2 (6 seed, Elite Eight)
So on the whole, UT and the Selection Committee are even...which guarantees nothing this year, but here's the point: while it's true that we've just seen the Vols perform well as a lower seed, it's also true that last year the Vols had wins over #1 Kansas and #2 Kentucky at home (somewhat comparable to winning at #3 Pitt and against #7 Nova in NYC)...and were still a six seed. With only eight losses.
So we've dug ourselves a hole in terms of seeding already. Still, Tennessee's first goal is always to win the SEC East, and at 2-2 in a crowded field that's certainly still on the table. But if the Vols want to compete for championships, and stay away from the bubble, they can't afford any more mistakes...and any loss in the next four games would certainly qualify.
LSU, Ole Miss, Auburn, and Alabama are a combined 40-33. The Vols, though inconsistent, have a significant talent advantage over all four of those teams - honestly, LSU and Auburn shouldn't be close, and if this team wants to prove something it can start by beating LSU by as much as it wants.
Compare that to Tennessee's last eight games, with Bruce Pearl back on the bench:
- at Kentucky
- at Florida
- vs South Carolina
- vs Georgia
- at Vanderbilt
- vs Mississippi State
- at South Carolina
- vs Kentucky
Four East road games, plus a rematch with Georgia and Kentucky a second time to close out the year. Tennessee should go 4-0 over the next two weeks. In the last half of SEC play? You'd like to think the Vols will win the home games, but we've already lost four times at TBA. Other than Mississippi State and maybe South Carolina in Knoxville, how many of those do we feel confident about?
In the last eight games, we're either going to be playing for championships and higher seeding, or playing for our tournament lives. Which conversation we're in depends on what we do in the next two weeks.
It won't be flashy, it won't help our RPI, and we won't beat anybody good enough to make us feel like this team has solved its inconsistency issues, even if we win all four games by double figures. But being consistent enough to win all four games - even if only by one point - is absolutely critical for this team. Doing so would get Tennessee to 16-7, 6-2 in SEC play - good enough to still be thinking about championships, but also safe enough that a 4-4 split in the last eight still gets you on the dance floor, easily.
The time to lock up a tournament bid isn't later, but now - lose any of the next four, and you're going to need the last eight even more. As was the case with UConn, big games are much more fun when they're more anticipation and less desperation. I want those eight to be about moving up and winning a title...not trying to sneak in the back door.
Are the Vols consistent enough to do it? History says no. But history also suggests that this team, like last year's, could still be a work in progress. The '09 Vols got it figured out in time to win the East at 10-6. The '11 Vols are a more talented group and have the wins to prove it, but the East is much, much better this time around.
The hard work good basketball teams do comes in getting the wins that everyone expects you to in the grind of conference play. Anybody can get up for one game, or make something special happen in 40 minutes. Good teams give themselves a real chance to win every night, and beat the teams they're supposed to beat.
The time for Tennessee to become a good team is now. You either figure it out now against lesser competition, or suffer the consequences when the road gets hard again. If we end up playing for a championship, it'll be won just as much over the next four games as it will be in the big ones at the end of the year. And if we're sweating on Selection Sunday, it'll probably involve us looking back on these four games and shaking our head somewhere.
Grow up. Play to your level, not the competiton's. Beat the teams you should beat. Do that, and we'll be back in two weeks having a very real conversation on how to win the SEC.