We argued for most of February for the Vols on the bubble, that the math was on the table. And beyond that, we argued that the Vols didn’t get here by luck. Tennessee had been habitually competitive against one of the nation’s most difficult schedules, started winning some of those games in late January, and rated higher in KenPom than any of the program’s NIT teams of the last two decades.
But on the first day of March, in the first game since at-large hopes were essentially squashed, the Vols accelerated their descent by breaking LSU’s 15-game losing streak. And just a week after letting go of NCAA Tournament dreams, an unexpected loss might put the NIT out of reach.
The first half was straight out of the Jerry Green playbook, with the Vols leading 46-42 at the break and both teams shooting over 50%. LSU scored 50 in the second half. Tennessee scored 36. The Tigers started pulling away four minutes into the second half.
There were long segments tonight when Tennessee’s offense wasn’t just ineffective but immobile. The Vols had ten assists in the first half and two in the second. It seems like when things start getting away from this team, they fall even deeper into the one-on-one game that just isn’t their style. The Vols are now 13-1 when they get 16+ assists and 2-14 when they don’t.
That makes 15-15, and that makes trouble for the NIT. Rick Barnes’ tough scheduling is advantageous to a team on either bubble, but not when it comes with the sheer volume of losses we’ve seen. And it’s unclear how the NIT will view the fact that one of those 15 wins is against D-II Chaminade. The Vols will get a chance to push back north of .500 at home against Alabama Saturday then the SEC Tournament. But right now this team looks tired and broken. Robert Hubbs was 4-of-13. The Vols’ once-mighty RPI is now 80.
The good news: Auburn’s loss tonight should keep the Vols out of Wednesday in Nashville. But if this team doesn’t rediscover itself, it’s not going very far in the SEC Tournament no matter what day it plays.