Martin, Vols Seeking NCAA Tournament Bid

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

Vols Thrash Gamecocks, 72-53

The men’s basketball team took care of business Saturday in front of 17,215 people at Thompson-Boling Arena. Coming off a tough road loss at Vanderbilt, the Vols rebounded, literally and metaphorically, to pound the South Carolina Gamecocks, 72-53.

The win helped the Vols improve to 15-8 (6-4), while South Carolina fell to 8-15 (1-9). Saturday’s win was also Tennessee’s 13th wire-to-wire victory under head coach Cuonzo Martin. Oddly enough, Tennessee’s last three victories have been wire-to-wire. They never trailed against Ole Miss, Alabama, or South Carolina.

After vaulting out to a 16-2 lead, Tennessee never looked back. Any chance South Carolina had of coming back in the first half was immediately silenced by a Tennessee jumper. Shortly after a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Jordan McRae, the Vols went to the locker room with a 45-22 halftime lead.

McRae had already eclipsed his season average, with 20 points in the first half. Jarnell Stokes added another 13 before the break.

While realistically the Gamecocks outscored Tennessee in the second half, it wasn’t so you’d really notice it. The Vols continued to coast, making open shots. However, South Carolina did make a minor push when Tennessee relieved its starters.

Trailing 54-31, the Gamecocks took advantage of a smaller lineup and went on a 10-0 run to make the score 54-41 before Tennessee put the starters back in. Armani Moore drilled a three-pointer to stop the run for South Carolina, and Tennessee continued to dominate.

Leading comfortably the rest of the way, the Vols sealed up the 72-53 victory.

As is common in Tennessee’s wins this season, McRae and Stokes played well. McRae finished with 24 points to lead the Vols in scoring, while Stokes added 17 points and eight rebounds, just shy of his usual double-double performance.

Jeronne Maymon added 10 points for the Vols, while Armani Moore racked up nine. Josh Richardson, Antonio Barton, and Darius Thompson combined for the remaining 12.

Coach Martin said, “I think they’re dependent on those three guys [Jordan, Jeronne, and Jarnell]. Those three guys have to play well for us in order for us to be successful,” when asked how his team relies on the efforts of Stokes, Maymon, and McRae.

For South Carolina, Sindarius Thornwell finished with 15 points to lead all scorers. Thornwell was the only major threat to the Vols in Saturday’s game, as all other scorers were held to single digits.

After being asked about how it feels to play teams that he can push around, Stokes said, “When you play against teams like this and you think you can push them around, they come out with a lot of fire knowing they are somewhat physically enabled against a big guy like me. These are scary teams to play because I feel like sometimes the ref lets them get away with cheap fouls.”

Tennessee made 53% of its shots on the afternoon, while the Gamecocks shot only 36%. The Vols also led the way in rebounding with 36, compared to 31 for South Carolina.

The Vols have won three of their last four games, and are currently sitting as a #11 seed in ESPN guru Joe Lunardi’s “bracketology,” which projects which teams will make the NCAA tournament.

Tennessee faces a monstrous test on Tuesday when they take on the Florida Gators in Thompson-Boling Arena. Florida is ranked third in the nation, with a record of 21-2 (10-0). They won the first meeting with the Vols, 67-41 in Gainesville.

The game is set for Tuesday, February 11th with a 7:00 p.m. start time on ESPN.