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NIT Bracket Math - March 6

What the Vols should need to make the NIT.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

So it’s the less fun but still promising version of bracket math as Championship Week goes full swing. Tennessee’s rally against Alabama broke a five-of-six losing run and sends the Vols to Nashville with a chance to play their way into the NIT. It’s not the goal we hoped for a month ago, but would still represent something more than any of us expected coming into the season.

The Vols are 76th in RPI, eighth in the SEC. In KenPom UT is 60th, seventh in the league. The best news out of Saturday’s action was Vanderbilt’s win over Florida, giving the league five teams in the most recent Bracket Matrix update. That opens the door a little wider for the next six SEC teams looking at the NIT (in order of RPI: Georgia, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn).

RPI has been just as important to the NIT as the NCAA. Bracket Matrix also has an NIT page showing the RPI of teams selected last year. For example: last year LSU was 19-14 with a potential number one draft pick. But the Tigers were 94 in RPI and were passed over by the NIT for, among others, Alabama at 18-14 with an RPI of 73.

Last year every power conference team with a winning record and an RPI between 55-89 made the NIT. However, parity is much more prevalent this year. Last year none of those teams with a winning record between 55-89 were less than four games over .500. Right now between 55-89 in RPI you’ve got Clemson (16-14), Tennessee (16-15), Ohio State (17-14), TCU (16-14), Indiana (17-14), and Texas A&M (16-14).

Remember, the NIT automatically takes any regular season conference champion that does not win its conference tournament and does not earn an NCAA at-large bid. That means you need to pull for all the one seeds in the mid-major tournaments. And it also means we won’t know exactly how large the NIT at-large field will be until the end of this week. Already we’ve seen Belmont and Oakland go down as one seeds.

Tennessee will have its own work to do. The Vols are 16-15 with one win over D-II Chaminade. On Thursday they’ll get a second shot at J.J. Frazier and Georgia. RPI Forecast projects the Vols to finish with an RPI of 83 if they lose to the Dawgs. There might be a minuscule chance the Vols could still get in - in 2010 North Carolina made it at 16-16 - if there are few upsets in mid-major tournaments, but I wouldn’t like our chances.

On the other hand, because Friday’s opponent would be Kentucky, Tennessee’s RPI would stay healthy regardless of the outcome if they beat Georgia. The Vols are projected to finish with an RPI of 67 at 17-16 if they beat the Dawgs but lose to the Cats. That should be enough to make the NIT. Beating Kentucky a second time and any subsequent victories (other than winning the SEC Tournament and getting on the dance floor) should do nothing but help Tennessee’s chances to host a round or two in the NIT.

For those of us who skew a little older this will feel a bit like Kevin O’Neill’s second team, which came to the 1996 SEC Tournament at .500 and needed one win to stay eligible. Steve Hamer turned in 31 points and an SEC Tournament record 21 rebounds as the Vols beat Alabama in the first round and made the NIT a few days later. That team broke a three-year postseason drought; since then the Vols hadn’t gone consecutive years without making the NCAA or NIT until the last two seasons. We think Rick Barnes and company will have a chance to bust that streak with a win on Thursday.