The conversation about Cuonzo Martin and the future of Tennessee Basketball is certainly a valid and meaningful one, with a vocal majority meeting little resistance right now. This particular article isn't written in favor or opposition of Cuonzo keeping his job. It's simply to say, we're not out of the NCAA Tournament picture yet.
Tennessee's second loss to RPI 120 Texas A&M leaves the Vols at 59 in those same rankings with four regular season games to play. That's where Tennessee ended its season last year after an SEC Tournament loss to Alabama, which as you know was just enough to keep us on the outside looking in. Because we're quite familiar with the bubble around here, we've studied who gets in before. You can find a full summary of every bubble team's RPI over the last eight years here. Since field expansion to 68 no major conference team with an RPI better than 50 has been left out.
You are certainly allowed to question the "major conference" label with the SEC. Right now you've got soon-to-be #1 Florida and the blue bloods from Lexington, and then you've got a train wreck. Georgia - 6-6 in non-conference play - is alone in third place and two games clear at 9-5. The Dawgs have an RPI of 88 that won't crack the Top 50 even if they win out. Behind them are SEVEN teams at 7-7, including the Vols. Unless Georgia collapses only one of those teams will get the final coveted double bye in Atlanta.
The relative strength of the SEC can be countered with Tennessee's strength of schedule, currently 17th best in the nation. We've been saying this all year: the Vols have the kind of resume the selection committee wants to reward if at all possible. But now the Vols have truly entered that special place of scoreboard watching and needing help in conference tournaments, including our own.
Winning out in the regular season should put the Vols in the mid-40s in RPI going to Atlanta. A number like that could probably handle winning your way to Saturday before getting put out by Florida or Kentucky and still get on the dance floor. Anything else in Atlanta and you've left the door open once more for the selection committee to say thanks, but no thanks, and once more at this point the Vols would have no one to blame but themselves. And if Tennessee loses another regular season game, I think we're going to have to win the SEC Tournament.
It's easy to say, "We'll be the favorites in every game left on the schedule," but the Vols were favorites in two meetings with Texas A&M and lost both. You've got Mississippi State on Wednesday in Starkville, losers of nine straight. Then it's Vanderbilt in Knoxville, already 1-0 against the Vols this season but still with just seven scholarship players. Then it's at Auburn, a pesky team the Vols put away late in Knoxville, 4-10 in league play. And then Missouri in what many will consider a bubble elimination game even if both teams win out before then.
With the SEC standings this tight in the middle there's still way too much basketball left to even guess what the SEC Tournament will look like. For Tennessee, they just have to win and hope. We're not in "win the SEC Tournament" mode just yet, but it'll probably take a perfect finish and at least some work in Atlanta to give the Vols a decent chance. Safe is an illusion around these parts, unless you want to win the SEC Tournament. Right now, same as always, the Vols just need to win. In every conversation involving all aspects of the program right now, I'd imagine nothing is truly over or finished, and this team needs to know that. But if they don't embrace the must-win now and go get it done, more than just our NCAA Tournament hopes could go down the drain.