A Word on the NCAA Tournament
So, the Vols won a game, and then Jerry Palm put them in a bracket, and now Big Orange hearts are all pitter-patter.
Look, this is more simple than you think it is. This happened last year in reverse, when the Vols lost to Texas A&M the second time and almost everyone immediately wrote off the season. But the RPI math still made sense if the Vols won their last four games. Which they did. And though it did come by way of Dayton, the Vols got in.
The only way to say with certainty the Vols are going to make the NCAA Tournament is to leave zero doubt in the regular season, which would take something like 21-9 (13-5), or an 11-4 finish from here. RPI Forecast, which is your friend for all these conversations for as long as they last, currently projects the Vols at 31 in RPI if they get to 21-9. That dances.
They currently give that scenario a 0.1% chance of happening, Lloyd.
We can say with certainty what it would take to be in the bubble conversation heading to the SEC Tournament. I feel like I've put this in every other article for the last four years, so my apologies, but since tournament expansion to 68 no major conference team with an RPI of 48 or better has ever been left out. RPI Forecast consistently puts the Vols in the RPI Top 60 if they were to finish 18-12 (10-8). That doesn't get you in. That gets you on the radar, needing help in the SEC Tournament and across the cut line.
Jerry Palm is one of four to put the Vols in their current projection according to the also-helpful Bracket Matrix. But there are 48 projections which do not currently include the Vols.
Look, it's January 16. The season is literally only halfway done. The last three years we've only been on the bubble, so watching all these numbers is all we know. But don't forget to enjoy a team that is without a doubt overachieving. And don't fall for the NCAA so hard you're ultimately disappointed if it's the NIT, which would deserve a standing ovation.
To that point:
A Word on Schedule and Narrative
Tennessee has beaten a pair of Top 20 teams already, so no one can reasonably suggest the Vols don't have a chance against anyone on the schedule, other than an entirely separate conversation about Kentucky. But know this:
- Next Six Games: at Missouri, at South Carolina, vs Texas A&M, at Arkansas, vs Auburn, vs Mississippi State
- Last Nine Games: at Georgia, at Vanderbilt, vs LSU, vs Kentucky, at Ole Miss, vs Vanderbilt, at Florida, at LSU, vs South Carolina.
- Average KenPom next six games: 111.7
- Average KenPom last nine games: 40
So there's a scenario here where the Vols get to, say, 14-7 (6-3). That would mean a split in these next two road games and holding serve at home against the bottom of the league, plus a loss at Arkansas. We would be fired up about this. But the Vols right now would be favored in, at best, three of their last nine games. Those are the breaks this season (which is good because the late-season 8-1 runs Cuonzo went on look almost impossible against this gauntlet).
(If we are good, by the way, and in the tournament hunt, it's going to be lots of fun to basically play a Top 50 opponent every night down the stretch.)
Again: it's January 16. Follow the matrix and the forecast if you want to. It's exciting to be able to even write this with this team. But don't get disappointed if Tennessee's name isn't on the bubble on Selection Sunday. And remember what's coming on the back end of this.
Which is why you just focus on right now, knowing how valuable every win is.
A Word on Missouri
The book on Missouri, another team with a first-year coach and a restart, went like this: they lost to Missouri-Kansas City in the opener 69-61, a warning shot. They played a really tough schedule, and it showed: 19 point loss to Arizona, 21 point loss to Purdue, 19 point loss at Oklahoma, 16 point loss to Xavier.
And then they started getting closer. Three point loss to Illinois. Overtime loss to Oklahoma State. Beat LSU in overtime to open SEC play. Lost at Auburn by six.
And then they played Kentucky.
The Wildcats changed their own narrative in league play, following two games and three overtimes with a 86-37 dismantling of the Missouri Tigers. I could give you lots of gross stats from that 49 point beatdown, but the most important one for us is this: Missouri went 1 of 18 from the three point line.
This team takes a bunch of threes, though some of that may be a byproduct of falling behind early and often. But they average 18 a night on the year and 22 in SEC play. For the season they average 34.6% from the arc, but you know the drill here: in nine losses, they're shooting 49 of 174 (28.1%), and only hit better than 37% in one of those games, falling at Oklahoma despite hitting 9 of 16 threes (56.3%). In seven wins, they're shooting 55 of 129 (42.6%), hitting better than 40% in five of those games.
Missouri is led by 6'9" sophomore Johnathan Williams III, getting 13.0 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. He'll be a mismatch for Tennessee down low, but no more than Bobby Portis was, which means the Vols should again focus on disrupting the offense before they can feed it down low. Tennessee continues to be last in the SEC in three point defense, allowing teams to shoot 37.5% from the arc. So there's certainly a scenario here where Missouri finds open looks against the zone, knocks down shots, and makes life difficult for Tennessee even if Williams doesn't go off.
This is where Tennessee will continue to need third and fourth options to step up. The most intriguing long-term development from the Arkansas game is Robert Hubbs, who had a career high 16 points and just looked different, more assertive. We shouldn't be quick to anoint a guy who still hasn't played a full season of college ball and shouldn't assume what we saw Tuesday was transformation. What Tennessee really needs is Hubbs to become that consistent third option behind Josh Richardson and Armani Moore, or Kevin Punter to rediscover his early season form (1 of 15 from the floor against Alabama & Arkansas). If both come on, even better.
I think these two teams are pretty similar. They're both new - Missouri lost its coach and its top three scorers from last year - and they're both really young. They both love to foul. And they can both do just enough of the other things to live by the three when it's falling.
Tennessee has had the better season so far, no doubt. I've got the Vols ninth in my SEC Power Poll ballot this week, but I think there's very little space between 2-10 in the league right now. I've got Missouri at 13th - they and Mississippi State are the only sub-.500 teams in the SEC - but they beat LSU and are certainly good enough to beat Tennessee in Columbia. It's an important game for momentum. But more than talking about brackets and all that, Tennessee just needs to focus on this game. It's on the road, but it's one the Vols can win.
6:00 PM ET Saturday, SEC Network.