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Can Tennessee Make the NIT?

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Breaking down the RPI math, with a chance to start building momentum coming against Auburn tonight.

Gunnar Rathbun-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee's pendulum swung hard again Saturday, as the Vols followed their biggest win of the year over Kentucky with a wire-to-wire non-competitive performance at Arkansas.  The Vols have yet to win consecutive games in SEC play, standing at 11-12 overall and 4-6 in the league.  If Tennessee wants to entertain making the NIT, that will have to change this week.

With eight regular season games to play, the work of the good folks at RPI Forecast becomes a little more clear.  Tennessee currently sits around 109 in RPI, and will need to get at or above .500 to be in the NIT conversation.  The Vols finished at .500 last year, but were left out to dry with an RPI of 96, with Arizona State and Vanderbilt getting the last two at-large NIT bids despite having slightly worse RPIs.  We never know the exact size of the NIT at-large field until Championship Week is over with regular season conference champions who don't make the NCAA Tournament given an automatic bid.  But you can see the RPI ratings of the teams who made the field last year over at Bracket Matrix.

What will it take for Tennessee to get their name on the table?  RPI Forecast projects the Vols would end the regular season with an RPI of 92 at 16-15 (9-9).  That number plus a win in the SEC Tournament would at least get the Vols on the NIT bubble, and with a high profile coach and a number of signature wins?  The Vols could slip in the field even at a game over .500.

Can Tennessee get from 4-6 back to 9-9?  The Vols would need to go 5-3 against Auburn, at Missouri, at Kentucky, LSU, at South Carolina, Arkansas, at Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss.  If you're looking for five wins in there, two of them almost certainly have to come this week.

The Vols have been a much better basketball team at Thompson-Boling, which is good news for a team looking to bounce back.  Auburn got the best of Tennessee in the SEC opener, but haven't gotten the best of anyone since back-to-back victories over Kentucky and Alabama in mid-January.  Since then leading scorer Kareem Canty has been suspended and an already banged up Auburn team has played short-handed.  The results have been rough:  lost at Florida by 32, at Ole Miss by 17, to Oklahoma State by 11, to LSU by a dozen, and at Georgia by 10.  There are 11 SEC teams in the KenPom Top 100, plus Mississippi State at 102.  You have to go all the way down to 175 to find Auburn, just above Missouri at 191 at the bottom of the league.

How did they beat Tennessee last time?  It's probably the most obvious box score in a UT loss this year:  the Vols shot 3 of 28 from the arc, the Tigers 12 of 26.  The six point Vol loss also featured one of the worst Armani Moore games of the year, 0 for 5 with one point.  Tennessee will need that to change tonight.

Bruce Pearl has a five star and two four stars coming in next season and will only get healthier, so it shouldn't be like this much longer on The Plains.  Tennessee needs to take advantage now, get back to .500 and start building momentum while it's still there to be had.

7:00 PM, SEC Network.  Go Vols.