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Kansas State is the Gateway

One more win against one more good team, and Tennessee will start finding itself in conversations no one thought possible this year.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

When you beat Kentucky, it deserves some time to breathe on its own. The W is its own celebration, no matter what it might do for your season or your postseason hopes.

And when you’re still only 11-9 (4-4) after beating Kentucky, those postseason hopes don’t look very realistic. Even the NIT still seems like a bit of a stretch with that record. And the NIT would be a significant accomplishment for a program that’s stayed home two Marches in a row for the first time since Wade Houston’s last year and Kevin O’Neill’s first (1994 and 1995) and a team picked to finish 13th in the SEC.

It doesn’t look like much, and it’s easy to over-inflate expectations anytime you beat Kentucky.

But if Tennessee can follow up with a win over Kansas State tomorrow, the math is going to be on the table. And not the NIT math. The field of 68 math.

The Vols’ 11-9 comes by way of the nation’s second most-difficult schedule if you ask Ken Pomeroy or third if you ask RPI. It went to first in KenPom for 24 hours after playing Kentucky, and playing the other Wildcats tomorrow could bounce it back up there. If we get to the point where Tennessee’s resume is getting thrown up on the screen, right now at Ole Miss is the only thing that might even remotely qualify as a “bad loss”. The Rebels are 12-8. The other eight teams to beat Tennessee are now 134-26; five of them are in the KenPom Top 16 (and, of course, so is Kentucky).

Add in three road wins, the blowout of suddenly-relevant Georgia Tech, and Tuesday’s win over the Big Blue, and the Vols may be 11-9 but have an RPI of 47 as of Thursday night. That rating doesn’t value margin of victory or, in Tennessee’s case, margin of defeat against the likes of North Carolina and Oregon. This is why, among other reasons, Ken Pomeroy’s ratings are the better indicator of how good a team actually is...and the Vols are #42 there, fourth in the SEC.

Never mind what the record is on January 27. Look closer, and with this team, just watch the games. The Vols are habitually competitive with the nation’s very best, capable of winning in hostile environments, and now finally have a signature win against a potential one seed.

And into all this walks a golden opportunity on Saturday at 2:00 PM. Because if the time does come to put cards on the table and fact sheets on the screen, Tennessee needs something other than “Kentucky” to go in the big wins column. And wouldn’t you know it, another one just showed up on our doorstep.

Kansas State is first in also receiving votes at 15-5 and likewise 26th in KenPom. They played absolutely no one in the non-conference - 346th in that metric - but then rolled into Big 12 play with all kinds of competitive fire. In the best or second-best conference in college basketball depending on who you ask, the Wildcats lost at Kansas by two, at Texas Tech by one, and to then-#1 Baylor by nine before winning at Oklahoma State by eight and home against #7 West Virginia by four. A five point loss at Iowa State capped a series of six-of-seven games against teams currently in the Bracket Matrix field. These guys got tested in a hurry and did pretty well.

This is a thin rotation: six players average between 8.9-12.7 points per game, then the seventh-leading scorer averages 2.9. It’s almost a completely different team from the one Donnie Tyndall’s Vols beat two seasons ago in the same SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

Kansas State shoots the ball really well: 47.8% from the floor in conference play to lead the Big 12. And they are deliberate, playing the 263rd fastest pace in college basketball, making for a clear clash of styles against Tennessee (currently 80th in pace). The Wildcats have not had much success defending the three in conference play (opponents shoot 44.7%, best in the Big 12), but I don’t know if it’s a good thing for this Tennessee team to feel a warm invitation from the arc. The shots they got against Kentucky were the product of excellent ball movement throughout a possession, not accepting an invitation to fire away.

Even when they’re not shooting the ball really well as the Vols did against Vanderbilt, the second half of Mississippi State, and Kentucky - and maybe that becomes a trend at some point, we’ll see - Tennessee is still productive offensively through offensive rebounds (third in the SEC) and getting to the line (fourth). And the more Tennessee’s assist/turnover ratio trends in the right direction (averaging 15.3-to-11.6 in league play), the less likely the Vols are to need the free throw line at all.

The conversations we really want to have - the ones with the real math and a realistic number the Vols would have to go in their last 10 games and how teams with an RPI this good usually dance - are all on the other side of a win against Kansas State. Getting a second win of Top 25-ish quality just changes the conversation itself in so many meaningful ways. This team is already a success through the first 20 games. It came make its last 10 mean far more than we imagined if they can get another win against another good team on Saturday.

There’s some excitement in the atmosphere with this team now. It could get real thick by tomorrow evening.

2:00 PM Saturday, ESPN2. Let’s find out what we can talk about Monday morning.

Go Vols.