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Scheduling Opportunity

A better-than-expected Tennessee team continues to face a better-than-expected schedule.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee Tech at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Double-knot those shoes tonight: Tennessee’s young athletic squad will face Lipscomb, who is currently playing the sixth-fastest pace in all of college basketball. The winner in 10 of the Bisons’ 12 games has scored at least 85 points. This bunch beat Tennessee Tech 104-85 on December 1; the Vols had a 22-point second half lead on TTU on Tuesday before having to hold them off late in the game.

It should be entertaining, but the Vols are again clearly the better team: Lipscomb is 4-8 with a pair of I-AA wins, ranked 249th in KenPom. But this is the last time the Vols can assume victory this year, and with this schedule that would have been true even if the Vols weren’t relying on so many freshmen.

The four teams to beat Tennessee are now 36-7. Number eight Gonzaga is up next; they’re one of only six undefeated teams left standing at 10-0. Then the Vols are at ETSU, currently 7-2 and up on Mississippi State in Starkville as I type. The Vols drew Kansas State in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge again this year; the Wildcats are 9-1.

And when SEC play begins at Texas A&M on December 29, the Vols will find a more competitive league than we’ve seen recently.

It’s similar at the top: Kentucky is the most talented team in the league, and three others are in the KenPom Top 35. Tennessee is currently in a crowded field that can consider itself the middle of the pack. But the bottom of the league, at least so far, looks a little stronger.

It’s been nine years since every SEC team was in the KenPom Top 150. Someone has to finish at the bottom in this league, but it’s fallen out in recent years. Last season Missouri and Auburn were a combined 21-41. The year before Missouri was 9-23 and Mississippi State was 13-19. And the Bulldogs were #205 in KenPom in 2014.

So far this year the league has 11 teams in the KenPom Top 100, with Auburn just outside at 108. Mississippi State is 130th, and Missouri is lurking just outside the Top 150 at 153rd. If the Tigers are again the worst the league has to offer - and Tennessee only plays them once this year - even they look better: a one point loss to #11 Xavier, a win over Western Kentucky, and a schedule including Davidson and Arizona.

The folks at RPI Forecast project Tennessee will finish the year with the nation’s 26th most difficult schedule overall, not a bad feat for an SEC team. It’s the kind of schedule that makes its own case in any tournament conversation. For the Vols to really make it count, of course, they need to get one of these big non-conference wins left on the table. But even without a win over Gonzaga or Kansas State, the combination of such a competitive schedule and such a surprising performance from this young team continue to make Tennessee Basketball worth the watch.