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Tennessee Basketball: The Back Nine

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After surprising wins and disappointing losses in the first half of SEC play, the Vols prepare to face a much more difficult schedule in their final nine games with the season's ultimate fate still up in the air.

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Donnie Tyndall's Vols entered SEC play winners of six of their last seven non-conference games, including W's over Kansas State and Butler.  The Vols played Arkansas twice in front nine, winning in Knoxville and falling valiantly in Fayetteville.  The other seven games came against teams picked to finish no better than seventh in the preseason SEC media poll.

We know better than most how fickle that poll can be:  the Vols were picked 13th coming in but find themselves tied for fifth at the turn at 5-4.  Even more surprising, taking away the two games against Arkansas the Vols went 3-0 on the road and just 1-3 in Thompson-Boling.  Tennessee got the two most important wins in Knoxville, getting the best of their most difficult opponents in reality and in emotional narrative.  But they were bested by three things that could be their undoing on any given night in any given arena:  zone defense, great ball movement, and hot three point shooting.  Alabama isn't as good and Texas A&M isn't as bad as we thought when they walked out of TBA victorious.  Mississippi State is still bringing up the rear in the SEC with an RPI of 180, making Tuesday night the worst of Tennessee's losses by far, but when a team shoots 72% from the three point line against you it tends not to matter what jersey they're wearing.

But those three things will continue to be red flags for this Tennessee team.  And the jerseys we're getting ready to see in the second half of the season should be more imposing.

The Vols only have four home games left, and one of them is Kentucky.  Tennessee does get a pair of underachievers in Vanderbilt and South Carolina in Knoxville, as well as an LSU team next weekend that's currently in a bit of a slide.  But having already won in Starkville and both Columbias, the road offers no easy nights the rest of the way in:  Georgia, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Florida, and LSU.

The league itself has turned cannibalistic, though not yet to a degree that will definitely hurt it on Selection Sunday.  Last night's Bracket Matrix update features six SEC teams in the field, all six currently residing in the RPI's Top 51.  Kentucky is three games clear of the pack at 9-0, and you have an established bottom of Auburn (3-6), Vanderbilt (2-7), South Carolina (2-7), and Missouri (1-8).  But there are nine teams between 6-3 and 4-5.

We know the Cats are dancing, and it would be a steep fall for Arkansas to miss the field at this point.  At the other end of the spectrum, Mississippi State is now 4-5 in league play after an 0-3 start, but has lots of work left to do to make even the NIT at 11-11 overall.  But even if you take out the suddenly hot shooting Bulldogs, nine teams in position for postseason play with nine games left is a big step in the right direction for this league, which scheduled up and avoided bad losses for the most part.  Getting five on the dance floor and three or four more in the NIT would be a win, but to do so will probably require additional separation in the standings.

Tennessee, of course, is still in that group, still hanging out in the Next Four Out with Florida in the Bracket Matrix.  Barring a total collapse, there are three ways Tennessee's season can go from here, four if you count an unlikely run in the SEC Tournament:

  • Bless their hearts, they still overachieved. The Vols will be favored in only two or maybe three of their final nine games, give or take what happens with LSU this week.  Going just 3-6 in these final nine games would ensure the Vols finish the season over .500 no matter what happens in the SEC Tournament (or 2-7 plus one win in Nashville).  And that would still be a success story for Donnie Tyndall.  It might not feel as good after a 12-5 (4-1) start, but considering the schedule and the strengths and weaknesses of this team, it would still be a good sign we have a coach worth holding on to.
  • One of those years you actually enjoy being in the NIT. Any NIT conversation always starts with this:  you never know the size of the at-large field, because any regular season conference champion that does not win its conference tournament and does not earn an NCAA at-large gets an auto-bid to the NIT.  Last year that was 13 auto-bids in an NIT field of 32.  But roughly speaking, since the NIT went to a seed-based field and added the auto-bids, no SEC team has made it without at least 18 wins.  Cuonzo Martin's first team got in at 18-14 after one and done in the SEC Tournament.  This means the Vols need to go 5-4 in these last nine games, or 4-5 with a win in Nashville.  There are no guarantees either number would get the job done depending on the size of the field and the number of SEC teams that make the NCAA Tournament.  But if the Vols finish the regular season 17-13 (9-9) or 18-12 (10-8), it means they will have kept their initial momentum and continued to play meaningful basketball down the stretch.  18-12 heading to Nashville will also have the Vols on the fringe bubble conversation; RPI Forecast projects UT would head to the SEC Tournament with an RPI of 65 at that mark, where you could start thinking about what a run in Nashville might do for you on Selection Sunday.
  • The Lloyd Christmas Scenario. The great thing about RPI, for all its faults as a measuring tool for which basketball team is better than the other, is it can be manipulated through smart non-conference scheduling (see tomorrow's opponent, currently 14-7 (5-4) and rocking an RPI of 25) and gives you a target to shoot for.  The bad thing about RPI is, you cannot lose to Mississippi State at home.  Now Tennessee's resume, even if it wins enough games to even have one in the conversation, will be saddled with a home loss to what is still projected to be an RPI 200+ team.  Which means Tennessee's number has a lower ceiling.  Which means before, 18-12 was a much stronger argument with a much higher number.  Now, 18-12 with a home loss to Mississippi State probably still needs at least two wins in the SEC Tournament to get you north of 50 in RPI on Selection Sunday.  This means if you really want a serious NCAA Tournament conversation, which is improper to have with nine games to play when you just lost to Mississippi State at home, the Vols are probably going to need to get to 19-11 (11-7).  That's winning six of the last nine games.  There's always a chance.

If there are bad losses left on the schedule, tomorrow is not one of them.  However, Georgia has lost two straight without Marcus Thornton, out with a concussion as the Bulldogs fell on the road at South Carolina 67-50, then rallying to within five in the final minutes at Rupp Arena before Kentucky pulled away 69-58.

The 6'8" senior's return would be a welcome one, as he leads the Bulldogs in scoring (13.7) and rebounding (7.3).  The only team to win in Athens this year is Arkansas, 79-75 on January 6.  Before Thornton's injury Georgia had won five in a row after opening SEC play with the Arkansas loss and a double overtime defeat in Baton Rouge.

This is a veteran Mark Fox squad with its top four scorers all upperclassmen.  Behind Thornton are familiar names in Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann, and Nemanja Djurisic.  Aside from being one of the better defensive teams in the conference, Georgia flat out gets to the free throw line:  10th nationally in free throw attempts, third nationally in free throw rate:

Tennessee needs wins.  We've seen them win games we thought they couldn't, home and away, and lose games we thought they wouldn't in Thompson-Boling.  There are no easy wins left on the schedule.  So every single one will continue to be precious; the more we get, the more we can talk about where this season is ultimately going.  Donnie Tyndall has done a good job getting the most out of this team, even considering Tuesday's setback.  He'll need even more from them in these last nine games to ensure the Vols have a successful season.

The back nine starts tomorrow at noon on ESPN2.  Go Vols.