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Tennessee Basketball: NIT Bracket Math & Ole Miss Preview

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The Vols look to earn their way into the NIT, while the Rebels fight to stay on the right side of the NCAA bubble.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

It's easy to lose sight of how well your team is doing on the whole when it starts 4-1 in league play and is now 6-7.  But just the fact the Vols enter late February with something to play for is an achievement; nevermind 14-11, I was worried we'd be playing these last five games at something worse than 11-14.

Despite losing six of our last eight, if Tennessee can make the NIT this season will still be a massive success.  What will it take to get there?  The helpful-as-ever Bracket Matrix also runs a weekly NIT bracketology, and includes the records and RPI of the teams who got in last year.  Tennessee was a six seed (which would mean no home game in round one) in their last projection, with another scheduled for this weekend.

You never know the exact size of the NIT field, but last year 13 major conference teams got in with RPIs ranging from 49-88.  For the Vols' RPI to finish in that window before we get to Nashville, RPI Forecast projects the Vols need to finish 17-13 (9-9), which means winning three of our last five games.

To do that, the Vols are going to have to win on the road again.

As I write this Ole Miss is down five in Starkville midway through the first half.  The Rebels had won six in a row before losing by a point to tourney-bound Arkansas.  Ole Miss had serious consistency issues in the non-conference, but in league play their only defeats are at Kentucky, vs LSU, at Georgia, and vs Arkansas.  And they beat the Hogs in Fayetteville earlier in the year.  Florida Atlantic transfer Stefan Moody has been a revelation, getting 15.6 points per game.  The usual suspects in Jarvis Summers and Ladarius White are also along for the ride.

Ole Miss gets to the line, and they make them:  the Rebels are the second best free throw shooting team in the nation, 78.9% from the stripe.  They also go to the boards, though Tennessee won't see any bigger challenge there than the one we just faced.  And also like Kentucky, Ole Miss is playing good defense, holding teams below 40% at 39.4% per game, 39th nationally.

Tennessee got surprising contributions from their bench against Kentucky.  The Vols obviously need to make more than two threes to give themselves a chance against tourney-bound squads like the Rebels should be, but continuing to see growth from guys like Tariq Owens is encouraging.

There is still separation at the bottom of the SEC - Auburn, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt are all 4-9 and Missouri is 1-10 - so the Vols should still be safe from finishing in the bottom four and having to play on Wednesday in the SEC Tournament.  As Carolina and Vandy still come to Knoxville, we control much of that ourselves.  If Mississippi State holds this lead you'll have a four-way tie for seventh place at 6-7, with LSU and Georgia just one game above at 7-6.  So the Vols aren't going to earn a first round bye this year, but they could still reasonably finish anywhere from fifth to tenth.

The grind of the season has to have taken some toll, and expending so much against Kentucky may not help either.  But Tennessee still has so much to play for if Donnie Tyndall can rally these guys for the home stretch.

We'll see where it goes in Oxford, Saturday night at 7:00 PM.  Go Vols.