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Tennessee Bracket Math: January 30

Projecting the Vols in their last 10 games, historic trends in the RPI, and more as Tennessee chases the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Getting to write this post is like unexpectedly running into an old friend. In the best week for Tennessee Basketball since coming out of Dayton to the Sweet 16 in 2014, wins over Kentucky and Kansas State have sped up the clock on the program’s progress. And let’s continue to be clear: the NIT would still be an unquestioned success for a team picked to finish 13th in the SEC.

I like taking the pulse on Sunday mornings at church. Yesterday’s predominant question: “...are we good?” Like, legitimately good? Come close against enough great teams and beat a great one and a good one this week? I mean, maybe through all this talk (and truth) about youth and over-achievement, at some point we have to ask ourselves if, in spite of all that, Tennessee is just actually a good basketball team.

The Vols are 38th in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings and 41st in RPI as of Sunday night, with a strength-of-schedule ranking first and fourth in those metrics respectively. Meanwhile Tennessee has reached the Next Four Out in the Bracket Matrix, and are in nine of 14 brackets which have been updated since the Kansas State win. In two of those brackets the Vols are a nine seed.

As you can see, this isn’t a conversation for later anymore. The Vols are very much on the bubble now.

How the Vols are expected to finish

Tennessee is 12-9 (4-4) with 10 regular season games left. Here are those games, along with the Vols’ chances to win according to Sagarin (via RPI Forecast)

Tennessee Remaining Schedule - January 30

Date Opponent Chance to Win
Date Opponent Chance to Win
January 31 at Auburn 53%
February 4 at Mississippi State 52%
February 8 Ole Miss 74%
February 11 Georgia 61%
February 14 at Kentucky 7%
February 18 Missouri 88%
February 22 Vanderbilt 66%
February 25 at South Carolina 25%
March 1 at LSU 72%
March 4 Alabama 65%

Using Sagarin’s numbers, RPI Forecast projects the Vols are most likely to finish 18-13 (10-8), and that such a finish would send Tennessee to the SEC Tournament with a projected RPI of 47. And letting history be our guide, we can see that a Top 50 RPI would certainly get you more than just in the conversation.

RPI History

Here’s the RPI cut line each year since the tournament expanded to 68 in 2011:

RPI Field of 68 History

Year Last at-large RPI Highest left-out RPI Highest Major left-out RPI
Year Last at-large RPI Highest left-out RPI Highest Major left-out RPI
2011 Southern Cal 67 Harvard 35 Boston College 58
2012 Virginia 53 Marshall 44 West Virginia 57
2013 California 54 Louisiana Tech 53 Kentucky 57
2014 Iowa 62 Southern Miss 34 Missouri 44
2015 Indiana 61 Colorado State 29 Stanford 59
2016 Vanderbilt 62 St. Bonaventure 30 Florida 55

Since the tournament expanded to 68, only two major conference teams have been left out with a Top 50 RPI. Both were in 2014, when Missouri (44) and Minnesota (48) stayed home. The cut line is always a bit of a moving target based on how many bid steals you have in conference tournaments, but in general if you’re a major conference team and in the Top 50 in RPI, you’re in. And if you’re 51-69, you’ve got a chance.

RPI Forecast projects the Vols to go to the SEC Tournament with an RPI of 58 if they’re 17-14 (9-9). But here’s a weird stat: in 2011 five teams earned an at-large bid with 14 losses, all from major conferences including Bruce Pearl’s last Tennessee team. Since then 14 teams have earned an at-large bid with 13 losses, but none with 14. Tennessee getting to the SEC Tournament at 18-13 and winning one game should make the RPI math work if we finish at 19-14, but would the committee be willing to put a 14-loss team in the field for the first time in six years?

On this and many points, Tennessee’s strength of schedule is going to be a huge feather in its cap. It may not stay number one all year, especially given we haven’t played Missouri or LSU yet. But it should certainly be high enough to be in every conversation surrounding the Vols.

So on each of these points, you can see the value of every single remaining win for Tennessee. The Vols have the strength of schedule component, have already won on the road thrice, and have an elite win and a really good win. Now Tennessee just needs the raw numbers to fall on the right side of the line: a Top 50 RPI and/or 13 or fewer losses.

The projections will get cleaner after every game. And keep in mind, if the Vols are able to steal a win at South Carolina or especially at Kentucky, or if the Vols somehow lose at home to Missouri, these projections would be significantly affected. But from 10 games away, I think we’re looking at something like this:

  • 20-11 (8-2 finish): Almost certainly in. The Vols would go to the SEC Tournament with a projected RPI of 31. They would almost certainly get a double bye in the SEC Tournament at 12-6, and even if they lost the Friday game there the RPI and overall resume shouldn’t suffer to the point they’d be left out. Winning 8-of-10 would really be winning 11-of-13, a huge ask for a team full of freshmen. The Vols are given little chance to win at Rupp and at South Carolina, but are some degree of favored in every other contest.
  • 19-12 (7-3 finish): Should be in; one win in the SEC Tournament wouldn’t hurt. This projects an RPI finish of 39. A bad loss in Nashville could drive that RPI above 50, and if Championship Week is full of bid stealers the Vols could find themselves on the wrong side of the argument. But if they go to Nashville sitting on 19 wins, I’m going to feel very good about things.
  • 18-13 (6-4 finish): Sweaty Selection Sunday. This is Tennessee’s most likely outcome and the one to cause the most turmoil. One win in the SEC Tournament would get the Vols to 19-14, giving them both 14 losses and probably a Top 50 RPI. Which would the committee emphasize more?
  • 17-14 (5-5 finish): Probably not. This projects for an RPI of 58, which means Tennessee would likely need two wins in Nashville to push it north of 50 by Selection Sunday. But even then you’d be talking about a 15-loss team (unless the Vols won the SEC Tournament, which, hey, that works!).

Thing is: 18-13 for this team seems more than doable. Chalk up a loss at Rupp and a home win over Missouri, and you’re asking these Vols to go 5-3 against at Auburn, at MSU, vs Ole Miss, vs Georgia, vs Vandy, at South Carolina, at LSU, vs Alabama. Every win will matter. But there’s also enough real estate left in the season for weeks like this one to not totally derail them. If Tennessee loses at Auburn on Tuesday night, don’t believe any sensationalistic “Vols throw away tournament opportunity” headlines. As long as 18-13 is still on the table, this team is going to have its chances. This upcoming week at Auburn and Starkville is the most difficult stretch of the regular season remaining, and it’s not as difficult as any of the previous weeks of conference play.

There’s a long way to go, but a lot of opportunity left out there. Just getting in this conversation is a significant accomplishment for Rick Barnes and this team. But the math is real and on the table. We simply need to win more than we lose from here on out to keep it there.