Tennessee’s quest to earn its seventh consecutive NCAA tournament appearance gained steam on Sunday, thanks to old rival Kentucky.
The Wildcats of coach John Calipari finished off a perfect 16-0 Southeastern Conference season with a win at Florida, thus handing the No. 2 seed in this week’s SEC tournament to the Vols. Tennessee (18-13, 10-6) doesn’t play its first tournament game until Friday at 7:30 p.m. EST against either Ole Miss (7) or Auburn (10). Tennessee beat both teams in Knoxville this season.
Vanderbilt, which also lost to the Vols in Thompson-Boling Arena last Saturday, claimed the No. 3 seed and will play the winner of the Mississippi State (6) and Georgia (11) game at 10 p.m. on Friday.
The good news is that Kentucky, which was challenged only once in SEC play — at Tennessee — is in the upper bracket, along with Alabama and Florida. The Vols defeated every team in their half of the bracket except Mississippi State, and they had a chance for a winning shot in the final seconds in that game, played in Starkville, Miss.
That bodes well for Tennessee’s NCAA chances. ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi has moved the Vols into his “First Four Out,” category, good news considering they were nowhere on Lunardi’s radar screen before beating Vanderbilt.
With Arizona’s loss to Arizona State on Sunday, the Wildcats dropped from Lunardi’s projected NCAA field and Texas slipped back in despite losing to Kansas on Saturday. That left Tennessee as Lunardi’s 69th-ranked team, just one spot out of the field of 68.
Earlier in the week, Lunardi told Nooga.com that if the Vols advance to the finals of the SEC Tournament, they were likely to earn a ticket to the Big Dance.
The NCAA tournament selection committee will have a lot to think about when it comes to evaluating Tennessee’s worthiness. The Vols struggled at times in non-conference play, even losing to a 1-9 Austin Peay team at home last December, but they turned things around in SEC games, upsetting Florida in their season opener and, after a 3-5 record in the first half that included two losses to Kentucky, rallying with a 7-1 mark in the second.
That was enough to earn a three-way tie for second with Vanderbilt and Florida, and by virtue of their sweep of the Gators, the Vols earned the No. 2 seed.
The NCAA doesn’t place as much stock on a team’s last 10 games as it used to, preferring to look at an entire body of work. The Vols, after losing four starters, including first-round NBA Draft pick Tobias Harris and All-SEC guard Scotty Hopson, were practically starting over from scratch with first-year coach Cuonzo Martin.
It took until January for Tennessee to fully implement the style of play Martin favors, but once that kicked in, the Vols became one of the best defensive teams in the SEC, limiting their opponents to 39 percent shooting, just behind national leader Kentucky in that department.
The other thing to consider about the Vols is a major personnel acquisition — five-star power forward Jarnell Stokes, who has meant the difference in at least three wins for the Vols (Connecticut, LSU, Vanderbilt).
Essentially, the committee is evaluating two different teams.
Asked about the Vols’ chances of getting into the tournament after the win over Vanderbilt on Saturday, Martin answered in no uncertain terms.
“This is an NCAA tournament team,” Martin said. “There’s not a doubt in my mind.”