Tennessee's resounding win over LSU moved the Vols back to 13-14 (6-8) and caused a few voices to ask if UT might sneak their way back into the NIT conversation. Any conversation about postseason play is really, at this point, a conversation about whether Tennessee can win a game away from Knoxville. I don't think anyone doubts this team's ability to beat Arkansas and Ole Miss in Knoxville. But with only a win in Starkville to their name outside Thompson-Boling this season, can we expect the Vols to get it done at South Carolina this week or at Vanderbilt next week?
As we mentioned after the Vols lost to Missouri, there comes a point near the end of seasons like this one where it's both less complicated and more likely for the Vols to win four games in four days at the SEC Tournament than to construct an NIT scenario. But with another big win in their pocket, if the Vols somehow found a way to create momentum here at the end of the regular season? With a little luck, the math can still work to get them in the NIT field.
Once more we turn to the good work of the folks at RPI Forecast, who project the Vols to have an RPI of 96 if they finish the regular season 3-1 from here to get to 16-15 (9-9). This can be done a number of ways, but most likely by winning out at home and then finding one road win in Columbia or Nashville. Finishing .500 in league play should get Tennessee somewhere between seventh and ninth in the league standings.
An important point to make here: the Vols certainly want to finish better than 12th, as the bottom two teams (after Missouri, who self-imposed a postseason ban) have to play on Wednesday. Right now Tennessee and Arkansas are a game up on Mississippi State (whom the Vols have the tiebreaker on) and two up on Auburn to avoid the play-in game.
But Tennessee would also like to finish better than 11th, because I believe there are six good teams in this conference (Kentucky, Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and yes, LSU). Whoever comes in 11th is going to have to play one of those teams on Thursday. If you need one win, you'd much rather find yourself in the 7-10 range and play one of Georgia, Alabama, or Ole Miss.
So let's say Tennessee gets to 16-15 and finishes 7-10. Using RPI Forecast's Wizard, I simulated the Vols then beating Alabama on Thursday in the SEC Tournament and losing to Texas A&M on Friday. That left the Vols at 17-16 with a projected RPI of 90. Last year two teams made the NIT with an RPI worse than that, including Vanderbilt. It would by no means be a guarantee - nothing really is with the NIT until conference tournaments shake out - but it could at least get the Vols to the table.
Something else to keep an eye on: Georgia's RPI is currently 80, with LSU at 88 and Ole Miss at 89. The NIT won't take an unusual number of SEC teams. The Vols will need to not only win their way into double digits, but also find a way to pass some of these teams in RPI along the way. It's never a sure thing - last year the Vols had a better RPI than Vanderbilt but the NIT took the Commodores - but this time around Tennessee is a more attractive pick with a more famous head coach and more marquee wins.
So the math looks like 3-1 the rest of the way then a Thursday win in the SEC Tournament to get to maybe. Two wins in the SEC Tournament to get to better than maybe. Three wins in the SEC Tournament to...look, at that point you just might as well win the thing.
But none of this matters if the Vols can't win a road game. They'll try again Wednesday night in Columbia.