Tennessee basketball: Winning three of final four should put Vols on bubble

LAWRENCE, KANSAS - JANUARY 25: Jalen Johnson #13 of the Tennessee Volunteers in action agains the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse on January 25, 2020 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
LAWRENCE, KANSAS - JANUARY 25: Jalen Johnson #13 of the Tennessee Volunteers in action agains the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse on January 25, 2020 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

With four regular seasons games left, Tennessee basketball is hoping to get in the NCAA Tournament conversation. Three wins should do it for the Volunteers.

They aren’t on anybody’s radar right now, even as a First Four Out or Next Four Out. That’s why we haven’t been doing NCAA Tournament bracketology projections for Tennessee basketball over the past few weeks, and we won’t do it again this week.

However, the Vols still have a great chance to work their way into the conversation. Currently, they are No. 69 in the RealTimeRPI, No. 64 in the NET rankings and as high as No. 53 in the ESPN BPI. That means they are clearly flirting with the bubble already, and at 15-12 and 7-7 in the SEC, they are just a couple of key wins away from being in that talk.

Each of Tennessee basketball’s last four games are against teams in the top 50 of all three rankings: at the Arkansas Razorbacks, at home against the Florida Gators, at the Kentucky Wildcats and at home against the Auburn Tigers. That’s why they are projected to finish with the No. 10 ranked strength of schedule.

According to the RealTimeRPI, Rick Barnes’ team currently has the No. 31 ranked strength of schedule. The Kansas Jayhawks, who are now No. 1 in the RPI, really helped them with their huge win over the Baylor Bears this past weekend. Even in a loss, that’s a quality opponent to boost their overall schedule.

Anyway wins two of their last four games, which they are projected to do in the RPI by beating Florida and Auburn, will result in them finishing No. 61. They will probably be significantly higher if those truths remain in the NET and the BPI. So that alone could put them on the bubble.

However, to really make it into the conversation, three wins is what they need. Their best path to do that is winning both home games and beating Arkansas on the road. They can sacrifice a loss at a team like Kentucky.

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This team did beat Arkansas by over 20 earlier in the year, so this is a real possibility. If they’re able to do that, then we could be looking at a team that is maybe as high as in the top 50 of all three rankings entering the SEC Tournament.

As a result, this should be the final goal for the Vols. They need to make sure they steal this Wednesday’s game at Arkansas and run the table at home. Then they have to make sure they have no bad losses in the tournament.

All of that likely means two tournament wins to get them to 20 overall with a top 10 strength of schedule. At that point, Tennessee basketball would firmly be in the NCAA Tournament conversation and a favorite to get in there. That’s the advantage of playing a tough schedule.

Splitting the final four games still keeps the Vols in the conversation in an outside way, but they need some major upsets in the SEC Tournament. Winning three of four means they just need to hit pars in that tournament. And yes, three of four is possible based on the RPI projections and what they did to Arkansas earlier this year.

If UT had taken care of business at home against the Texas A&M Aggies and at the South Carolina Gamecocks, two losses they shouldn’t have let get away, we’d be having a different conversation. Sure, beating the Auburn Tigers on the road would have helped. But those are two games they needed to win. You could maybe bring up the Memphis Tigers at home as well.

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Having any of those games back would be helpful. Two back would put them on the bubble for sure, and three back would have them in right now. But that didn’t happen, so this is what’s facing Tennessee basketball. The Vols can still reach the Big Dance, though. Three wins should be their goal down the stretch.