The Tennessee Volunteers basketball team have dug themselves into quite a hole a little past the halfway point of the SEC season. The Vols (15-8, 6-4 SEC) head into Tuesday night’s rematch against the No. 3 Florida Gators (21-2, 10-0) desperately needing a big win to pad their NCAA Tournament resúme. The last time this UT squad faced the Gators, they were pounded into submission and handed a brutal 67-41 loss on the road.
Things have only been more confusing for the Vols since that game.
Following a season-long trend, the Vols looked impressive after a loss, handling Ole Miss at home and finding a way to win at Alabama, a notorious black hole for the Vols. They followed up those impressive victories with an equally befuddling loss to an undermanned Vanderbilt squad in Nashville to kill their momentum and give the fanbase another reason to clamor for Cuonzo Martin’s job.
Now the Vols are coming off an impressive (if predictable) drubbing of lowly South Carolina this past Saturday and improved to 7-1 after losses this season. UT badly needs an NCAA tournament resúme-building win, and this game against Florida may be the last chance the Vols get at doing so until the SEC Tournament (assuming they advance past the first round). This team has not accumulated a winning streak of over four games all season, and that winning streak included wins over lightweight Morehead State and Division II Tusculum College.
According to ESPN, Tennessee’s RPI currently sits at 48, which is right on the fringe of getting into the Big Dance. If a team has an RPI of 40 or lower, they are generally always accepted into the NCAA Tournament. Teams with an RPI of 41 or higher are usually “on the bubble,” which means their Tournament hopes are basically in limbo. Tennessee is right where it has been ever since Cuonzo Martin took over as head coach: On the bubble.
So what must the Vols do to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 3 years? Only one thing can assure them a happy postseason, and that’s to win the remaining 8 games on their schedule.
Winning out will not be an easy task, as you might imagine. Not only do the Vols have to take on the No. 3 team in the nation Tuesday night, but they still have a home/away series with Missouri left on the schedule, as well as a road trip to a tough to peg Mississippi State team.
Sure, the games against Georgia, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Auburn are all winnable, but with how inconsistent this team has been all season, I wouldn’t dare to guarantee a win over anyone at this point. Plus, the Vols have already lost to Texas A&M and Vanderbilt once this season; who’s to say it won’t happen again?
The Vols basketball team has struggled all season to find a consistent identity, and if they don’t find one within the next few games, this season may be another bust for a team aspiring to reach the Big Dance. UT can really only afford one loss the remainder of the regular season, and that would only be against Florida, and it would have to be a close game. If the Vols win out, they shouldn’t have to worry about performing exceptionally well in the SEC tournament. Because, as history has shown, UT does not typically succeed in the SEC Tournament whatsoever.
It’s time to put up or shut up, and the Vols are dangerously close to having their NCAA Tournament hopes silenced.