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Tennessee SEC Tournament Preview - The Bucket List

The Vols haven't won the SEC Tournament since 1979, and it will take that to get back to the NCAA Tournament this year.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

First thing's first:  I think the only way the Vols can play their way into the NIT from 15-15 (7-11) is to win their way to Sunday and then lose to Kentucky in the finals.  Tennessee's RPI is sitting at 105 right now; that scenario, with wins over Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and Georgia or Ole Miss (barring major upsets) plus a loss to the UK juggernaut should leave the Vols with an RPI in the high 60s, and that should be enough to get in the NIT field.  Wins over Vandy and Arkansas and a Saturday loss could leave the Vols with an RPI in the high 80s, which might be enough if most of the mid-major tournaments go chalk, but Tennessee would still be just 17-16 at that point and could get overlooked.

Generally you say, "Well, if we have to make it to Sunday, we might as well win the whole thing."  I agree!  The problem is, Kentucky still plays in this league.  Maybe the Cats get knocked off earlier in the weekend, and hey, I wouldn't mind another shot at them anyway especially with an even more attractive winning streak on the line and a chance for us to get on the dance floor.  But there are three wins and lots of assumptions between now and then.  We haven't had to settle for the dream scenario going into this week for nine years.  Plenty of times between 1979 and 2006 Tennessee teams went to the SEC Tournament with around .500 records looking to get hot for the weekend.  But only twice since the '79 title have the Vols even made it to the finals (the miraculous run from the nine seed in 1991 and the up-and-down 2009 squad), and only four other times have the Vols made it to Saturday (1983, 2008, 2010, 2014).  This tournament isn't really our thing; winning it remains on the bucket lists of fans my age and younger.

We'll still be drawn to the dream this week, and that's in part because of the reality:  the Vols went 3-10 down the stretch and inexplicably went 2-7 at home in SEC play.  In the arena Saturday there was an air of inevitability about it, even against a lower-tier team like South Carolina:  the Gamecocks went zone, the Vols got no consistent touches in the paint, and settled-for threes fell just nine times in 26 tries.  This team is what it is and the opposition knows it full well at this point.

There is some silver lining, of course:  Tennessee's path to Sunday would include two teams it already beat in Vanderbilt and Arkansas, and probably a Saturday opponent the Vols went to the wire with on the road in Georgia or Ole Miss.  The Commodores are the hottest non-Kentucky team in the league, and Arkansas is generally considered to be the second best team in the SEC.  But I still like this draw better for the Vols than an 8/9 date with Alabama or Florida with, of course, Kentucky waiting on Friday.

I'm not sure one win or loss is going to change much about the narrative of this team or its head coach at this point, though it would be nice to finish at or above .500, which now requires winning on Thursday night.  The only thing Donnie Tyndall can really do to change the taste of this season for the better is make a run.  The upperclassmen on this team are used to playing high-pressure basketball from last year's NCAA Tournament run.  But how well that will translate this week is yet to be seen; Tyndall himself went 3-2 in the Conference USA Tournament at Southern Miss, including a double overtime loss in the title game to Memphis in 2013.  He went 5-3 in conference tournaments at Morehead State, including a pair of tickets to the big dance.

When you need to get to Sunday for your season to continue this whole week carries extra build-up, and then it can go away very quickly.  But until then, Tyndall and the Vols will continue to prepare, and we'll continue to enjoy basketball season while it's still here.  These Vols have been at their best on the road in the SEC.  We'll see how much of that carries over to Nashville, and how long it can last.