As Selection Sunday approaches, the senior laden Tennessee Volunteers are seated firmly on the same bubble that has eluded them the last two seasons. In Head Coach Cuonzo Martin’s first two years at the helm, the Vols have been left out of the NCAA tournament and selected to play in the NIT tournament.
While it is a complement to receive an NIT bid, Vol Nation has been accustomed to seeing their team in the big dance. Tennessee made the NCAA tournament six years in a row before Martin’s arrival in Knoxville. In the past two seasons, Tennessee has finished just shy of an NCAA bid, actually being referred to as the first team out in ESPN’s “bracketology” by Joe Lundardi last season.
Now in his third season, Martin and his most talented Vols team desperately seek an NCAA bid, and it is more attainable than many fans would like to believe.
Lunardi currently has Tennessee (16-10, 7-6) in the NCAA tournament as a #11 seed, and receiving one of the last four byes. They have an RPI (ratings percentage index) of 51 and the eighth best strength of schedule in the nation.
In other words, Tennessee is currently the seventh to last team in the field, giving them a slight cushion. If the field were selected today, not only would the Vols be in on an at-large bid, they would also be able to avoid the “first four,” which are two play-in games that narrow the field of 68 teams down to 64.
CBS Sports “bracketologist” Jerry Palm also currently has Tennessee in the field as a #11 seed. However, Palm considers the Vols to be one of the last four in the field, thus projecting them to be in one of the play-in games. So, albeit as close as it is, Tennessee is considered to be in.
However, there is a problem for the Vols. “Bracketology” does not include conference tournament upsets. Each conference tournament winner gets an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. In a perfect world where all the favorites won their conference tournament, at-large teams like Tennessee would be in the field.
Unfortunately, every season, a few bubble teams are knocked out because of this reason. For example, Saint Louis (24-2) is a heavy favorite to win the Atlantic 10 tournament. Yet, if they lose in the finals to George Mason (9-17), then George Mason gets an automatic bid, and Saint Louis becomes a highly attractive at-large team. In a situation like this, Saint Louis would bump Tennessee out of the field.
So, what exactly does Tennessee have to do to get in the NCAA tournament? To begin with, they need to win their next four games, which include back-to-back road trips against Texas A&M and Mississippi State, a home date with Vanderbilt, and a game at Auburn. None of these teams have an RPI better than 92 and the Vols simply can’t afford a loss to a team of that caliber.
That is, unless of course they beat Missouri at home on March 8th. Missouri has a current RPI of 36, and would provide a tremendous boost to a resume that already includes wins over Virginia, Xavier, and LSU. Tennessee also needs at least one win in the SEC tournament. Generally, a strong-finishing bubble team that can even out at 1-1 in the conference tournament will be in good standing.
Every game is vital from this point forward, and while Tennessee can probably afford another loss, two losses before the SEC tournament would likely drop them out of the field. The Vols have a favorable schedule to finish strong, but March 8th is the date to circle. A Senior Day win over Missouri could be just what the doctor ordered for this senior laden team.
Edited by Will Lomas