KNOXVILLE – It’s been one of the biggest questions buzzing around Tennessee’s basketball program since a sluggish fall start put it into question: Will the Vols make the NCAA tournament this year?
The answer to that question will have huge implications for a program and its third year under head coach Cuonzo Martin. A tournament miss doesn’t necessarily mean that he loses his job. And making it, especially if the Vols flameout quickly, also doesn’t guarantee job security.
But making the Big Dance is clearly the expectation in Knoxville after former coach Bruce Pearl led a run of six straight tournament appearances from 2005-06 to 2010-11. Two years of just barely missing out has only raised the anxiety level of UT fans ready to see the program playing in it again.
With that in mind, here are the two sides of the argument as the Vols (16-10, 7-6 SEC) prepare for life on the bubble during their final push down the stretch:
Tennessee will make the NCAA tournament
. If the season ended today, the Vols, in all likelihood, would be in. ESPN ‘bracketology’ expert Joe Lunardi has the Vols in his most recent bracket, and that was even before UT’s convincing win over top-100 RPI squad Georgia on Tuesday night. CBS bracket expert Jerry Palm agrees, putting the Vols in his bracket that was last updated on Monday as well.
. The computers seem to like Tennessee. Many of the formulas used by the selection committee to rank the teams play into UT’s favor. Despite losing three out of four heading into this week, Tennessee is still hovering around No. 50 in the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) and could very possibly be back inside the top 50 with its win over Georgia and if the Vols can win at Texas A&M this Saturday. Strength of schedule is also working in UT’s favor. ESPN, as of Thursday morning, ranks UT’s at No. 9 nationally. It’s consistently stayed around that spot over the past few weeks and, assuming it stays in the top-20 range, it should be a huge plus for UT in the selection process.
. On paper, Tennessee’s schedule is advantageous down the stretch. The Vols play at Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn and host Vanderbilt and Missouri. UT has a chance to be favored in every game. Win those five, get at least one win in the SEC tournament and UT is in pretty good shape at 22-11 with a decent RPI and solid strength of schedule. There might even be some margin for error.
Tennessee won’t make the NCAA tournament
. The Vols might be favored on paper to win most of their games down the stretch, but their inconsistent play all season proves that nothing is a given with this squad. They’ve already been upset by two of the teams – Vanderbilt and Texas A&M - left on the schedule, and Missouri, a team also battling to make the tournament, defeated the Vols in Columbia last week. Though UT might have a little breathing room, there certainly is not enough for it to slip up multiple times like it has at other points this season.
. The schedule is ranked among the toughest in the nation, but UT hasn’t come away with too many signature wins in the process of playing it. The best win to this point is UT’s 87-52 triumph over Virginia in December. The Cavs entered this week at No. 17 in the NCAA’s official RPI. But outside of that, there are some good, though not spectacular, wins. The Vols beat Xavier (RPI: 41) on a neutral court in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving, but also lost to the Musketeers on the road in their season opener. SEC wins over Ole Miss (69), LSU (72) and Arkansas (75) are the next-best efforts. The season finale against Missouri (38) will be UT’s only guaranteed chance to pick up another solid W down the stretch. UT’s best shot at quality SEC wins – two games against Florida, a game at Kentucky and the game at Mizzou – have already passed.
. Playing in the SEC isn’t helping anybody in the conference’s chances right now. CBS currently ranks the SEC as seventh among all conferences, but last among the more traditional power conferences such as the ACC, Big Ten, Pac 12, Big East and the Big 12. So how much will wins over the likes of A&M, Auburn and Mississippi State – all lower-level SEC teams – mean? Not a lot. The Vols have more to lose than to gain when playing those games. And while any SEC tournament wins would help, getting them over anybody but Florida, Kentucky or possibly Missouri won’t do a ton of good. If it comes down to an SEC school against a team from one of the other major conferences to decide one of the final slots, expect the other conference to win out.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga