A win and a loss and not much has changed in Tennessee’s bubble picture from last week. We still think the Vols will need 18 wins to be in the conversation, while 19 would give them a resume that almost always dances since expansion to 68. Winning at Auburn and losing at Mississippi State didn’t change Tennessee’s profile too much: as I write this on Tuesday the Vols are 37 in RPI, 36 in KenPom, and the third team out in Monday night’s Bracket Matrix update.
With eight regular season games to go the Vols’ schedule breaks evenly into two groups. The Vols will be heavy underdogs at Kentucky, where we’ve won four times since Rupp Arena opened in the 1976-77 season. Likewise at South Carolina, home of the nation’s highest-rated KenPom defense which already shut down the Vols in Knoxville. And the Vols will be heavy favorites in hosting Missouri, which just won its first SEC game, and at LSU, which has only beaten Missouri.
Winning at Kentucky or South Carolina or losing to Missouri or at LSU would significantly impact Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament profile. But as we’ve pointed out repeatedly, the Vols already have a strong resume in the details. Tennessee’s strength of schedule currently rates third in RPI and second in KenPom. The Vols have a pair of RPI Top 50 wins over Kentucky and Kansas State, four road wins, and if we’re having this conversation at all on Selection Sunday it will be because they finished above .500 in the SEC.
Also in our Bracket Math piece last week are these two facts I keep coming back to:
- Since expansion to 68 in 2011, only two major conference teams with a Top 50 RPI have been left out.
- Since 2012, no at-large teams with 14 losses have been selected.
If the Vols finish 18-13 (10-8) and win one game in the SEC Tournament - still the most likely scenario according to RPI Forecast - they’re going to check both of those boxes and leave the committee to break historical precedent one way or the other. This is why getting to 19-12 is so important.
If you assume (which you shouldn’t, but amuse me for the rest of this article) wins over LSU and Missouri and losses at Kentucky and South Carolina, that means much of Tennessee’s fate is going to come down to what it does against Ole Miss, Georgia, Vanderbilt, and Alabama. All four are at home. All four are currently between 53-76 in RPI, meaning all four could have bubble dreams of their own in the next four weeks. And Sagarin gives the Vols between a 61-71% chance of winning each of them.
Tennessee should already be 1-0 against Ole Miss, blowing a 13-point lead with 15 minutes to play in Oxford on January 17. That was the last bump in the road before the Vols blew a 19-point lead in Starkville on Saturday to end the four-game winning streak that got us to this point.
For Tennessee to stay on track, these four home games are incredibly important, starting tonight. But staying on track certainly has a new question mark:
UT senior forward Robert Hubbs has been bothered by a knee injury— Jimmy Hyams (@JimmyHyams) February 6, 2017
since Kentucky game Jan. 24 and has been limited in practice since.
The Kentucky game, you’ll remember, featured 25 points from Tennessee’s senior on 9-of-14 shooting. Hubbs still had 10 on 5-of-10 against Kansas State, but scored only 15 on 4-of-19 combined on the road last week.
Hubbs continues to lead the Vols in scoring (14.3 points per game) and minutes (31.7), but Tennessee’s most efficient player in conference play has been...
Schofield averages 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds in 16.3 minutes on the year, but in conference play those numbers go up to 10.9 points and 5.6 rebounds in 20.1 minutes (and 8-of-14 from the arc). On a per-possession basis, Schofield is Tennessee’s best player in league play.
Just as per-play is a better way to talk about football, per-possession levels the playing field in basketball. Here are Tennessee’s SEC stats stretched out per 100 possessions:
Schofield has a negative assist-turnover ratio, but he’s been great everywhere else offensively. His shooting percentages from two and three lead the Vols, and his overall rebounding numbers are even better than Grant Williams’.
But it’s also important to notice that not just Schofield, but Williams and even Lamonte Turner have been more efficient than Hubbs on the offensive end in SEC play. That’s a good sign for Tennessee’s hopes not going down the drain if Hubbs is going at less than 100%. But where Hubbs is underrated is on the defensive end; while the Vol offense did go stagnant in two second half stretches at Starkville, Tennessee’s defense also noticeably suffered. Hubbs helps make Tennessee go on both ends of the floor, but if he’s struggling the Vols may need to pick up the slack more on the defensive side.
Ole Miss is heating up, just missing an upset of Baylor before blowing out Mississippi State by 27 and winning at Vanderbilt by seven. And the Rebels are done playing Kentucky and Florida, making tonight one of their best opportunities for upward mobility left on the schedule. It’s a big opportunity for both teams. 6:30 PM ET, SEC Network.