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Tennessee likely only has one path to the NCAA Tournament

Just win, baby.

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

Now is the time to look back on this season and play the what-if game. Missed opportunities will ultimately tell the story of Tennessee’s 2019-20 season. From the poor start against Florida State, to the near upset in Kansas, to the blown leads in South Carolina and at Auburn — the Volunteers could have easily been on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Tennessee had another chance to make something happen on Saturday at home against Auburn, but fell flat on their face. The Tigers ran the Volunteers out of the gym on a day where everything seemed to be on the line.

Now instead of having to win a couple of games in the SEC Tournament this week in Nashville, Tennessee more than likely needs to win them all. The Vols will start with Alabama on Thursday afternoon with the winner set to face the No. 1 seeded Kentucky Wildcats on Friday.

Tennessee went to Rupp Arena and beat Kentucky a week ago. Would another win over the Wildcats be enough to get Tennessee back into the NCAA picture? After that lackluster performance on Saturday, probably not.

Tennessee has to go win the SEC Tournament to get into the big dance. It’s something that they haven’t done since 1979. The Volunteers have made it to Sunday’s Championship Game for two consecutive seasons, but came up short both times. And this time around, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield won’t be here to help.

Can they make it happen? Tennessee has been frustratingly inconsistent this year, but the potential is there, as we saw last Tuesday night. John Fulkerson has emerged as one of the best low post threats in the SEC, while Jordan Bowden certainly can fill it up if he’s on. Guys like Santiago Vescovi and Yves Pons are X-factors for Tennessee, and if the Vols have it all working, they’re tough to handle for anyone.

The problem has been getting everyone going at once. In order to win the SEC Tournament, they’re going to need the Fulkerson that put up 27 points against Kentucky. They’re going to need the good version of Jordan Bowden hitting shots. They’ll need Yves Pons and Jalen Johnson hitting from outside. They’ll need Santiago Vescovi playing in control. They’ll need Josiah-Jordan James doing a little bit of everything on the stat sheet.

CBS named Tennessee a sleeper team in the SEC Tournament, citing Fulkerson and the athletic ability of the roster. It’s certainly going to be a tough road though, tasked with playing an explosive Alabama offense first, and then potentially one of the best teams in the country in Kentucky second.

This week is Tennessee’s final chance to do something special. Anything short of a title will leave them as a likely NIT team.