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Tennessee Bracket Math - February 24

Everything you need to know about Tennessee’s final bubble chances.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Brianna Paciorka-USA TODAY Sports

On the heels of a disappointing loss to Vanderbilt and the edge of a tough task at South Carolina, it’s important to remember how successful this season has already been. The Vols might not make the NCAA Tournament, but Rick Barnes’ squad has done far more than not come in 13th place in the SEC.

Here’s the KenPom rating for every Tennessee team since 2002, as far back as the website reaches. KenPom doesn’t measure how successful a team is as much as how efficient a team is; like S&P+, I tend to think of it in terms of which team would scare me the most on the other sideline.

Tennessee Ken Pomeroy Ratings

Season KenPom Rating KenPom Rank Record
Season KenPom Rating KenPom Rank Record
2014 Cuonzo 23.67 10 24-13
2008 Pearl 21.73 14 31-5
2006 Pearl 18.99 17 22-8
2010 Pearl 18.13 30 28-9
2007 Pearl 17.99 30 24-11
2009 Pearl 16.18 32 21-13
2017 Barnes 14.1 47 15-13
2002 Buzz 12.67 54 14-16
2011 Pearl 12.07 62 19-15
2012 Cuonzo 11.37 63 19-15
2003 Buzz 10.76 58 17-12
2013 Cuonzo 10.45 73 20-13
2005 Buzz 8.71 82 14-17
2016 Barnes 7.29 103 15-19
2015 Tyndall 7.24 90 16-16
2004 Buzz 7.11 90 15-14

With three regular season games and whatever happens in the postseason to go, the 2017 Vols rate better than all of our other NIT representatives the last two decades as well as Bruce Pearl’s final NCAA Tournament team.

Pearl’s 2011 team is now much more relevant. We’ve said for more than three weeks that recent history suggests the Vols would need 18 wins in the regular season to be in the conversation and 19 to get on the dance floor. Wednesday’s loss takes 19 off the table, which means the Vols will need to sweep these final three games and then hope the conversation is favorable.

Only two power conference teams with a Top 50 RPI have been left out since field expansion in 2011. RPI Forecast projects the Vols would be sitting on 51 going to the SEC Tournament if they win out. But no team has earned an at-large bid with 14 losses since 2011, when Pearl’s final team was one of five to make the field with 14 L’s.

That squad danced on a Top 20 strength of schedule and a handful of quality wins. This Tennessee squad will flirt with a Top 15 strength of schedule heading to Nashville and wins over Kentucky and at Vanderbilt, which is now a Top 50 RPI win. If we’re in the conversation on Selection Sunday, it will be because the Vols have added another quality win at South Carolina.

This year’s bubble seems thin on mid-majors and thick on mid-tier power conference teams. Here is every team seeded from nine down in Thursday’s Bracket Matrix update; with the possible exception of previous Vol opponents, these are the teams you’ll want to pull against:

(Projected records come from RPI Forecast and are for the end of the regular season)

2017 NCAA Tournament Bubble

Team Matrix Seed RPI KenPom Record Projected Record
Team Matrix Seed RPI KenPom Record Projected Record
Virginia Tech 9 36 48 19-8 21-9
Miami 9 37 28 19-8 20-10
USC 9 32 62 21-6 24-7
Arkansas 9 33 46 21-7 22-9
Michigan 10 51 27 18-10 20-11
Michigan State 10 46 55 16-11 18-13
Kansas State 10 61 30 17-11 19-12
California 11 45 49 18-9 20-10
Seton Hall 11 48 58 17-10 19-11
Marquette 11 69 31 17-10 18-12
Syracuse 11 78 45 17-12 18-13
TCU 12 53 42 16-11 17-13
Illinois State 12 34 52 23-5 24-5
Georgia Tech First Four Out 88 79 15-12 16-14
Providence First Four Out 54 56 17-11 19-12
Tennessee First Four Out 63 47 15-13 17-14
Wake Forest First Four Out 40 33 16-12 17-13
Clemson Next Four Out 65 36 14-13 16-14
Vanderbilt Next Four Out 47 51 15-13 16-15
Rhode Island Next Four Out 49 53 18-9 20-10
Houston Next Four Out 59 40 19-8 21-9

As you can see, that 14 loss barrier might be in trouble even without the Vols. Michigan State, Syracuse, and TCU are all projected in the field and projected to finish with 14 losses unless they win their conference tournaments.

Much of this conversation could still come down to the committee’s perception of the SEC, still with only four teams in the matrix compared to nine for the ACC, seven each for the Big 10 & Big 12, six for the Big East, and five for the Pac-12. This is the strongest SEC we’ve seen since league expansion, but will it be enough to convince the committee to insert more balance in the bracket? And if the SEC does get five bids, the best arguments for Tennessee can now also be made for Vanderbilt, who still has games with Florida and Kentucky next week to improve their own standing.

It’s a longer shot for Tennessee now, no doubt, but there’s still a shot. The Vols could win out, win a game or even two in the SEC Tournament, and still get left out. They’ve left their fate in the committee’s hands and to even be in the conversation they can’t lose again until Nashville. But this is still a far better season than we thought we were getting in a far stronger SEC than we’ve seen recently. And while the NCAA Tournament may be more of a dream than a reality for this team now, the dream isn’t dead just yet.

It will live or die at South Carolina tomorrow. The Gamecocks were 19-4 (9-1), then lost to Alabama in four overtimes on February 7. After winning at Mississippi State they’ve lost three in a row to Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and Florida. Their NCAA Tournament hopes should still be safe; they’ve got the state of Mississippi to close next week. This would certainly qualify as a quality win for the Vols.

Carolina is still the third-best defensive team in the nation in KenPom, and they certainly had their way with the Vols in Knoxville: Tennessee shot 32.7% from the floor, 1-of-11 from three, and turned the ball over a staggering 22 times. The Vols kept it close by, as usual, taking advantage of the free throw line (25-of-33). But it wasn’t enough to overcome 22 points from Sindarius Thornwell and 7-of-13 from the arc from the Gamecocks in a 70-60 Carolina win.

This season won’t be anything close to a failure if the Vols don’t get it done tomorrow. But this is the last chance to stay in the at-large bid conversation. Let’s see if this team has one more surprise left in them.

1:00 PM Saturday, SEC Network. Go Vols.