The magic number is 8-8.
Tennessee, at 9-11 and 1-4 in SEC play, is a long way from March. But the improvement we've seen in the last few weeks suggests this team is still plenty capable of playing with anyone in the league. Tennessee's defense is a product of its effort and focus, and the more the Vols feel like they still have something real to play for, the better the Vols will be on that end.
And again: the Vols will always have a chance to win the SEC Tournament to get to the big dance; winning four games in March is probably a more reasonable expectation than the Vols putting up the sort of almost perfect regular season finish it would take to get them in the at-large conversation. If Tennessee continues to improve, they can be at their best when that tournament rolls around, and we'll see what they can do.
But as this team will only get better one game at a time, so too can they keep another goal in mind: 8-8 in SEC play would get the Vols to 16-15 heading to New Orleans, and qualify them for the NIT. It's a real goal that would still be a real success for this team. But with four conference losses already on the books and a trip to Rupp Arena on the horizon Tuesday night, Tennessee needs every win they can get. So for the NIT long-term, but for the continued momentum of this basketball team short-term, this is a very, very important basketball game for Tennessee today.
Joining them in the NIT hunt are the Auburn Tigers at 12-8 (2-4). Auburn has played a soft schedule (their SOS in KenPom's ratings is 218; Tennessee's is 40) and ran off to a 10-3 start, then lost at Florida State by 29, at Vanderbilt by 30 (and scored just 35 points), and at Rupp by 15. Since then, they've been feisty: a double overtime win over Ole Miss, an overtime loss at LSU, an eleven point win over South Carolina, and a three point loss at Arkansas. This team is playing with more confidence and has just as much to play for today as we do.
At this point, just get used to seeing the other team get more points from the free throw line than we do. But overall, similar to the Georgia team we saw a couple weeks ago, this bunch really struggles to score points. The Tigers average 64.5 points per game, better than only Georgia and South Carolina in the SEC and 243rd nationally. They also don't shoot the three well (31.6%, tenth in the SEC).
Auburn has size inside with 6'8" Kenny Gabriel (11.6 pts, 8.0 reb) and 6'10" Rob Chubb (9.4 pts, 4.9 reb), but Tennessee definitely has the size advantage on the perimeter. Frankie Sullivan is their leading scorer at 12.6 per, but Sullivan is 6'1" and Chris Denson and Varez Ward are both 6'2". Ward runs the point and averages 3.8 assists - Tennessee will need Trae Golden to be the better point guard today. But it'll also be interesting to see who draws Sullivan on the defensive end.
For Tennessee, it's simple: don't turn the ball over 25 times, and make more than one three pointer. If the defense is there again today, Tennessee doesn't need to be great on offense, but they do need to be efficient. It would be great for a team that plays so well at home to get a big win today - the Vols are a nine point favorite, and can really smother Auburn if they keep playing defense so well - but any win will do.
The Vols and Tigers go at 6:00 PM ET on ESPN2/3 this evening. Feel free to use this post as an open thread for all the other SEC action today, which is pretty good:
- Arkansas at Alabama - 1:30 PM ET - SEC Network
- Mississippi State at Florida - 1:30 PM ET - SEC Network
- MTSU at Vanderbilt - 2:00 PM ET - This is apparently not televised, which is a shame since MTSU is 20-2
- Kentucky at LSU - 4:00 PM ET - SEC Network
- Auburn at Tennessee - 6:00 PM ET - ESPN2
- South Carolina at Ole Miss - 7:00 PM ET - Fox Sports Net