The combined record of Tennessee's last nine opponents is a staggering 147-50 (.746). But the combined record of Tennessee's remaining nine opponents is 118-74 (.614). The Vols stand at 10-12 and just 2-5 in the SEC, but hope remains for a meaningful end to the 2012 season. Despite the blowout loss at #1 Kentucky, Tennessee's defense remains strong - the Vols trail only the Wildcats in defensive efficiency ratings in conference play. And the presence of Jarnell Stokes continues to provide both interest and reason to believe that things will get better for the Vols.
The schedule certainly can't get any worse, and won't. Tennessee has nine games left to play their way back above .500 and get in the NIT conversation. And remember, the Vols will always have a chance to play their way into the NCAA Tournament by winning the SEC Tournament in New Orleans, a road they can make much easier on themselves by finishing as high as possible in the overall league standings, which no longer account for divisional play.
Ken Pomeroy's numbers project the Vols to finish 14-17 (6-10), a number that would be good for ninth in the league and looks to assure you a rematch with Kentucky in the quarterfinals if you were lucky enough to get past the eighth best team on Thursday. While the NIT did do away with their .500 or better requirement several years ago, it hasn't changed anything - no below .500 team has ever made the NIT, and if the Vols want to be there, they need to make sure they're on the right side of the line.
We would've called making the NIT in Year One a rousing success for Cuonzo Martin back when the season began. And we didn't really think it possible at all after the second Memphis game when the Vols were run off the floor. The Vols both dealt and took some damage in the month of January that may leave us feeling a little confused about where this team really is, but we need to remember the NIT would still be a tremendous accomplishment for this team, something to be very proud of this year, and something that would allow the Vols to keep playing and keep growing.
To get above .500, Tennessee needs to go 6-3 in their final nine regular season games. Make no mistake, it will be a challenge. But I believe it is a worthy goal for this team, one they are capable of reaching if they continue to improve.
But exactly how far above .500 do the Vols need to be to feel good about their NIT chances?
Thankfully, I was unfamiliar with the NIT selection process because we haven't had to worry about it in so long. The Vols' last three trips came in years two and three of Buzz Peterson's tenure, and before that year two of the Kevin O'Neill era.
In 1996 the Vols made the NIT at 14-14 after a memorable win over Alabama in the SEC Tournament to stay above .500. The NIT was very different back then - ESPN had a lot of control over selection and seeding, allowing a .500 team like Tennessee to not only get in, but host a first round game (which they lost to Charleston). The Vols next made the NIT in 2003 at 17-11, when they were robbed of a trip to the NCAA Tournament by Jon Higgins and Jim Harrick. The Vols hosted Georgetown during UT's spring break; there may have been more people watching from my hotel room in Myrtle Beach than were in Thompson-Boling Arena that day, as the Hoyas ended UT's season. The Vols were back the next year at 15-13, but had to travel to George Mason and were immediately bounced again.
However, the selection rules changed in 2006 and the field was trimmed to 32 teams in 2007. Now ESPN has no power and a selection committee does all the work. But more importantly, now any low/mid-major regular season conference champion that does not win its conference tournament and does not receive an NCAA at-large bid receives an automatic bid to the NIT. This means it's impossible to know the size of the NIT at-large field until Championship Week is over. For Tennessee, you want as little drama as possible in early March, with all the favorites winning their conference tournaments.
For instance, last year a whopping fourteen low/mid-major champions failed to win their conference tournament, including teams like Charleston, Murray State, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Cuonzo Martin's Missouri State squad, thus making up about half the field in the NIT. That number has been as few as five in 2009 and tends to hover around eight on average, but there's really no way to know or predict what it will be this or any year.
In a crowded field like last year's, here are the records and RPI ratings of the major conference teams that made the NIT - the tournament plays with home court advantage the first three rounds:
2011 NIT Major Conference Selections - 18 at-large bids available
- Alabama (1 seed - 21-11 - RPI 80)
- Boston College (1 seed - 20-12 - RPI 58)
- Colorado (1 seed - 21-13 - RPI 65)
- Virginia Tech (1 seed - 21-11 - RPI 62)
- Miami (2 seed - 19-14 - RPI 73)
- Washington State (2 seed - 19-12 - RPI 82)
- Oklahoma State (3 seed - 19-13 - RPI 61)
- California (4 seed - 17-14 - RPI 76)
- Northwestern (4 seed - 18-13 - RPI 87)
- Nebraska (5 seed - 19-12 - RPI 89)
- Ole Miss (5 seed - 20-13 - RPI 83)
- Auburn (1 seed - 22-11 - RPI 64)
- Florida (1 seed - 23-10 - RPI 54)
- Notre Dame (2 seed - 18-14 - RPI 77)
- Penn State (2 seed - 22-11 - RPI 70)
- Virginia Tech (2 seed - 18-14 - RPI 61)
- Baylor (3 seed - 20-14 - RPI 56)
- South Carolina (3 seed - 21-9 - RPI 57)
- Kansas State (4 seed - 21-11 - RPI 80)
- Kentucky (4 seed - 20-13 - RPI 79)
- Miami (4 seed - 18-12 - RPI 65)
- Northwestern (5 seed - 17-13 - RPI 78)
- Providence (5 seed - 19-13 - RPI 72)
- Georgetown (6 seed - 16-14 - RPI 58)
- Nebraska (6 seed - 18-12 - RPI 76)
- Washington State (7 seed - 17-15 - RPI 92)