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Can Tennessee make the NIT?

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)
Seven at-large bids went to mid-major squads. So in a tight field like last year's, it took an RPI better than 90 and a record at least three games over .500 to get in. I'm not sure that those are numbers Tennessee is going to get to in 2012.

But in a wide open field, as was the case in 2009?

2009 NIT Major Conference Selections - 27 at-large bids available
  • 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)
So here, a dozen at-large bids went to mid-major schools. The NIT seems to make a point of not overly favoring major conference teams; even with more room to work with, the highest major conference RPI to make the field was 92, and you still needed a record at least two games above .500.

Some of it will depend on the strength of the NCAA bubble - for instance, in 2010 three major conference teams made the NIT with 17-15 records. But since the selection process was changed and the tournament trimmed to 32 teams in 2007, only one major conference team has made the NIT with a record one game above .500 (California in 2008 at 16-15 and an 87 RPI), and only one major conference team has made it with a record at .500 (North Carolina in 2010 at 16-16 and a 92 RPI; it should also be noted that Northwestern made this field at 20-13 but with an RPI of 116 due to a weaker NCAA bubble).

In short, just getting to 16-15 at the end of the regular season doesn't assure the Vols of anything. The size of the NIT at-large field won't be determined until the first week of March, so we'll have no idea how close we are even if .500 or above is within reach. And the strength of the NIT at-large field depends on the strength of the NCAA bubble, and we've got a whole month to figure that part out too.

If you're looking for good news here, there are two additional postseason tournaments. The College Insider Tournament, though I can't find this stated as official policy, has never selected a team from a major conference in its three year history. The College Basketball Invitational, a sixteen team field, has selected eight major conference teams in its four year history. Though an SEC team has never played in the CBI, it's possible that some teams have turned down the opportunity to do so if they couldn't make the NCAA/NIT. And also of note: the CBI has no above-.500 regulation. Last year Oregon was selected at 16-17 with an RPI of 135. The two previous years, Oregon State went at 14-17 and 13-17 (and won it). St. John's went at 16-17 in 2009. So if the Vols don't flame out the rest of the way and are willing to play in this thing - and this year, they should be - there's hope for postseason basketball even if it's not the NIT.

What's the point of all this? Tennessee, at 10-12 with an RPI of 145, needs to win games and improve, for this year and next. Right now, nothing is off the table. Getting above .500 is a good goal and the NIT would be a tremendous accomplishment, but we don't know how realistic it is and won't until the regular season is over anyway. Every team's real goal - the NCAA Tournament - will always be on the table in New Orleans. Tennessee will need its best basketball to be taken seriously in the SEC Tournament, and needs to win enough games between now and then to give themselves a reasonable seed (as in, higher than eight and away from Kentucky as long as possible).

It's a new month, and the journey toward the postseason and their best basketball starts tonight. The Vols' remaining nine regular season games: Georgia, South Carolina, at Florida, Arkansas, at Alabama, Ole Miss, at South Carolina, at LSU, Vanderbilt. Are six or more wins in there? The only way to find out is one at a time.

I believe the future of this basketball program is bright. But I also believe there is still much to play for in the present, one game at a time. This thing is headed in the right direction, but real postseason opportunity - NCAA, NIT, and CBI - can still await this team at the end of this season.

What tournament can the Vols play themselves into? We'll find out starting tonight against Georgia.