Vols Basketball: NCAA Tournament Worthy?


Where do the Vols stand entering the home stretch of their schedule? -Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Tennessee Volunteers basketball team’s NCAA Tournament destiny is in doubt, and the Vols are sitting squarely on the bubble entering the final 5 games of the season.

Sound familiar? All the bubble talk surrounding UT sounds like a broken record for Big Orange fans, and this year’s team is at least consistent in that regard. After missing the NCAA Tournament in two consecutive seasons, what makes this year’s squad any different so far? Well, let’s look at their body of work in what is typically called a team’s “NCAA Tournament resume.”

Let’s start with the good. According to CBS Sports, the Vols (16-10, 7-6 SEC) currently have the 12th best strength of schedule (abbreviated SOS) in the country. Currently only Kentucky (5th) and Alabama (3rd) have a better SOS than the Vols in the SEC, and Baylor (8th) and Minnesota (6th) are the only other bubble teams with a better SOS than UT. The NCAA Selection Committee typically makes SOS a big priority for teams, so the fact that the Vols have one of the tougher schedules in the country really helps them.

CBS Sports also has Tennessee’s current RPI (Rating Point Index) at 51, which is right in the danger zone of being left out of the Tournament. First of all, let me explain the RPI. According to Yahoo! Sports, the RPI is “a measure of strength of schedule and how a team does against that schedule.” Basically, you can think of the RPI as an extended AP Top 25 poll to rank all 300 plus NCAA Division I teams. Typically teams ranked in the top 40 or 45 RPI will make it to the 68 team Tournament without question. Teams ranked between 45 and 60 usually stand on shakier ground.

The reason the Selection Committee doesn’t just take the top 68 teams in the RPI into the Tournament is because “automatic bids” exist. These bids are given to the conference tournament winner of each of the 32 NCAA Division I conferences (such as the SEC, Big 12, ACC, etc.). So that’s 32 of the 68 seeds already taken, and teams from the smaller conferences, such as the Patriot League or the Big Sky Conference, usually have very low RPI ratings. This makes getting your RPI lower very crucial, especially if you don’t perform well in your team’s conference tournament.

Another statistic the Selection Committee looks at is a team’s record against top 50 and top 100 RPI teams. Currently, the Vols hold a 2-6 record against top 50 RPI teams with wins over Virginia (19th) and Xavier (50th). The Vols also have a 4-3 record against teams with an RPI between 50-100, which isn’t the greatest record, but at least it is a winning one.

Now for the bad news. While the Vols don’t have any debilitating losses or statistics, there certainly are some factors that go against them. To begin with, they’ve missed out on their 3 best opportunities to snag a prominent win in the SEC. UT went 0-3 against Florida and Kentucky and lost to Missouri as well, the only other team in the SEC ranked in the top 50 RPI. The good news is they still get one more shot at Missouri in Knoxville, but swinging and missing on all your top chances does not help your chances.

The one thing that is hurting Tennessee the most so far are their losses to Texas A&M and UTEP. While UTEP is at least barely in the top 100 RPI (98th), the Texas A&M loss is unacceptable and very detrimental to UT’s NCAA resume. Texas A&M currently has an RPI of 136, and that is by far the lowest RPI of any team the Vols have lost to so far this season. At least the UTEP loss was on a neutral court early in the season; the Texas A&M loss happened on Tennessee’s home court early in the SEC season and killed the momentum the Vols had after dismantling LSU on the road. While neither loss is absolutely horrible, if there is one specific thing to point to if the Vols fail to make the Tournament, the Texas A&M loss may be it.

The loss to Texas A&M could be the nail in the coffin for the Vols if they aren’t careful. -Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

So let’s review. Here’s the Vols current NCAA Tournament resume:

Record: 16-10 (7-6 SEC)

RPI: 51

SOS: 12

Record Against RPI Top 50: 2-6

Against Top 100: 4-3

Key Wins: Virginia, Xavier

Bad Losses: UTEP, Texas A&M

Based on this resume, I say the Vols are about as square on the fence as you can be. If you want a definition of a 50-50 team for getting into the Tournament, Tennessee might just be your team. CBS’s “Bracketology” currently has Tennessee as one of the 11 teams “on the fence,” neither definitively in nor out.

If the Vols want to ensure their postseason doesn’t end in disappointment like it has the past two seasons, they likely must win the remaining 5 games on their regular season schedule. Winning a game or two in the SEC tournament wouldn’t hurt either.

The back end of the Vols schedule is extremely kind to them, and if you couple that with their need for an extended winning streak, this is one great opportunity for Tennessee. It’s now “win or go home” time for Tennessee, and they absolutely cannot afford another slip-up.