It's appropriate that, despite the postseason goals having changed, Tennessee will still play what could be season-deciding games against two of its biggest rivals. Next week the Vols will be in Baton Rouge to face an LSU team that already dismantled them in Knoxville. Tennessee does close the regular season with a home game against South Carolina, who is 4-11 in SEC play. But by the time March 7 rolls around, much of Tennessee's NIT fate may have already been decided.
This is the week for the Vols to make their move: home against Vanderbilt tonight, in Gainesville Saturday evening. The size of the NIT at-large field is always a moving target because regular season conference champions who lose in their conference tournament and do not receive an NCAA at-large automatically qualify for the NIT. In the six years the NIT has used this format, there have been as few as five and as many as 14 teams earn those automatic bids, meaning the at-large field has been as small as 18 and as large as 27. On average, 22 at-large spots have been available each year.
Tennessee is 14-12 (6-8) with an RPI of 84 as I write this snowy morning. Last year 13 major conference teams made the NIT with RPIs between 49-88. So right now, I think the Vols are in position to stay in a reasonably sized at-large field if they can win three more games, be it two down the stretch and one in Nashville, or a 3-1 finish in the regular season.
Easier said than done, of course: Tennessee is 2-7 in their last nine games. The Vols beat Bruce Pearl on January 31, but our only other win since January 20 is against tonight's opponent, 76-73 at Vanderbilt in overtime two weeks ago.
That leads us to these quotes, shared by Tennessean reporter Adam Sparks yesterday:
Stallings: "If you've got to get yourself motivated vs your rival that you gift-wrapped a game to last time, you don't deserve a uniform"— Adam Sparks (@AdamSparks) February 25, 2015
Stallings' allusion to the gift-wrapping is Vanderbilt missing seven free throws in the final five minutes and the Dores giving away a five point lead with ten seconds left. Maybe he's cranky because this will be the third straight year Vandy misses the NCAA Tournament and the eighth straight year they haven't made the Sweet 16. For a coach who told our fans to "Enjoy the NIT," when Cuonzo's first team beat his in Knoxville, he'll need a major winning streak to get his team there with an RPI of 119.
Stallings has never made a friend in Knoxville. I actually like Baldwin's comments in a rivalry like this one. But when you put out stuff like this:
...and you lose, you take your medicine.
From Tennessee's perspective, we've already seen once this year the Vols go on the road and win when the opponent struggles from the free throw line, then said opponent comes to Knoxville and gets revenge. Mississippi State did just that in a home loss that looks a little better than it did three weeks ago. The Bulldogs have become part of this story because, despite losing to Kentucky last night, they're 5-10 in the SEC and could tie Vanderbilt for 10th in the league if the Vols win tonight. 10th is important, because it's the last team to avoid playing on Wednesday in the SEC Tournament. This also means if Vanderbilt wins tonight, you'll have Mississippi State in 11th at 5-10, but Tennessee, Florida, and Vanderbilt all just one game clear at 6-9. If the Vols win tonight, they should continue to feel safe about missing Wednesday. But lose, and it's a dangerous possibility.
Tennessee would also love to finish 7th and avoid Kentucky on Friday. Win tonight, and they'll tie Alabama for 7th at 7-8. Of course, the Vols have to finish above Alabama because the Tide have the head-to-head win. The long and short of it continues to be, of course, Tennessee needs wins.
This is the first time the Vols will play the short turnaround this season, going from Thursday night in Knoxville to Saturday at 6:00 PM in Gainesville. But the Gators, thanks to six losses in the non-conference, have nothing to play for but the SEC Tournament, sitting at 12-15. Florida has lost six of seven, including being just the second team to lose to Missouri this year on Tuesday night. The Gators have been close in almost every game, and are the unluckiest team in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's ratings for what it's worth. But Florida presents a second important opportunity for the Vols to get a win this week.
I don't know what the crowd will be like tonight with the snow or Saturday with the disappointment, but these are two big games for Donnie Tyndall and the Vols. We've been saying it for weeks: Tennessee still has a chance to make this entire season a success story, not just the early portion or a few individual wins. This is an important win to get tonight for the season sweep of Vandy, positive momentum, and getting one step closer to the NIT.
7:00 PM tonight, ESPN2. Go Vols.