Tipoff: 9:00 p.m. ET | The Hump - Starkville, MS
Television: SEC Network
Live Audio: Vol Network
The SEC scheduling up in the non-conference and taking care of most of the business it should have taken care of means there are very few "bad losses" potentially out there. It's still quite volatile in early January, but right now 12 of the league's 14 teams are in the RPI Top 135 as conference play opens, and that includes the Gators at the bottom of that list at 134, which I would expect to change in their favor. Bruce Pearl's Auburn squad currently sits at 117. The only two potential toe stubs: Missouri at 180, and Mississippi State at 222, the Vols' opening opponent tonight.
Let's start with the most optimistic ideas and work back to reality from there. I think Tennessee needs to finish above .500 in league play (at least 10-8) to be in the bubble conversation heading to the SEC Tournament. This may actually seem easier than it sounds since last year's Sweet 16 team went 11-7 in the SEC, but remember, the league appears to be much deeper this year. RPI Forecast projects Tennessee to go 7-11 in SEC play this year, but they project a 10-8 league record to give the Vols an RPI around 60 headed to the SEC Tournament, which would be enough to have them on the bubble.
Again, a mandatory word about RPI: we're well aware it isn't the best way to measure a college basketball team. But as long as the selection committee continues to value it, we will continue to monitor it. Before last March, since expansion to 68 teams in the field, no major conference team with a Top 50 RPI had ever been left out. Last year Missouri (49) and Minnesota (50) got cut at the wire. Perhaps the committee is beginning to value it less, which is a good thing. But they have rewarded Top 50ish major conference teams with incredible consistency.
The NCAA Tournament is the dream. But making the NIT would still be an incredible accomplishment for Donnie Tyndall's year one Vols. You never know about the size of the NIT field because regular season conference champions who don't win their conference tournaments and don't earn an NCAA at-large do earn an automatic bid to the NIT. So it's impossible to say exactly what kind of record or RPI it would take for Tennessee to get in there. Last year four SEC teams made the NIT:
- Missouri - 22-11 (9-9) - RPI 49
- Georgia - 19-13 (12-6) - RPI 74
- Arkansas - 21-11 (10-8) - RPI 77
- LSU - 19-13 (9-9) - RPI 83
- Mississippi State is the worst three-point shooting team in the SEC. This is exceptionally good news for Tennessee, which has the worst three-point defense in the SEC. The Vols allow opponents to shoot 39.1% from the arc, and teams get 41.7% of their points from the three ball against Tennessee, the highest percentage allowed in college basketball. The flip side, of course, is the Vols allow the fewest percentage of points from the two ball (34.8%) in the nation. Mississippi State shoots 31.9% from the arc. Junior Fred Thomas is the team's leading shooter, and he hits just 33.3%. They don't take very many, averaging just 13 attempts per game. But since their 5-0 start they've shot over 40% from the arc just once, going 8 of 15 in the win over Jacksonville. Tennessee should be able to play its zone without being exceptionally worried about the open threes that can be found against it.
- Mississippi State is the most turnover-prone team in the SEC. This is also exceptionally good news for Tennessee, which is 32nd nationally and third in the SEC in creating turnovers, and best in the league in steals. The Vols get a steal on 13% of opponent possessions and force a turnover on 23.6% of opponent possessions. Mississippi State turns it over 23.7% of the time. Again, Tennessee should be able to do its thing with the press and zone without fear of exploitation.
- The Haves and the Have Nots in the post. Mississippi State gets 10.8 points and 5.8 rebounds from 6'7" Roquez Johnson, and 10.4 points and 5.8 rebounds from 6'9" 260 lbs Gavin Ware. Those two join Fred Thomas as the team's double figure scorers. Tennessee could now be without Jabari McGhee for the rest of the season, with a redshirt looking like the most likely option. We're going to be making this point about post players all year. The Vols have nine scholarship players, and 6'10" Tariq Owens is by far getting the fewest minutes (7.0 per night, appearing in 9 of 12 games). This puts huge pressure on and/or presents an opportunity for Willie Carmichael, who is improving and played one of his better games of the year against ETSU. But the Bulldogs (and most of the SEC) will present stiffer challenges in the post on both ends of the floor.