Tennessee Inches Closer to NCAA Bid, Win Over Alabama Could Seal DealPosted by David Changas on March 14th, 2013
David Changas (@dchangas) is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Thursday afternoon’s SEC Tournament game between Tennessee and Mississippi State.
While the SEC has endured a significant amount of well-deserved criticism for its share of mediocre (well, bad) basketball this season (the fact that Mississippi State not only didn’t finish last in the league and was even able to win a game in the conference tournament – albeit against equally woeful South Carolina – is Exhibit A of the league’s futility), perhaps no conference presents more bubble scenarios as we roll towards Selection Sunday. Thus, while the usual Kentucky-related buzz is absent from this weekend’s festivities in Nashville except to the extent the Wildcats are on the bubble themselves, there is a lot of intrigue about which teams will emerge and land a spot in the field of 68. As of now, it is assumed that only Florida and Missouri are locks for the field, with Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Alabama, and Tennessee seeking bids.
Clearly, no team is more squarely on the bubble than the Volunteers, who dispatched of the significantly undermanned Bulldogs 69-53 behind 17 points from Jordan McRae Thursday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena. The win arguably will do nothing to help the Vols’ standing in the RPI and with the committee, but a loss would have crippled Tennessee’s chances to receive a bid. Now, they must face a much tougher test on Friday, as they take on co-bubble dweller Alabama. While some view the contest as a “play-in” game of sorts, Tennessee comes in with a better resume than the Crimson Tide, which has no wins over the RPI top 50. And Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin doesn’t think the bid is in question any longer. “I said after we beat Mizzou that we’re in the NCAA Tournament, so I’ve moved past that,” Martin said, unconvincingly, after the game. Still, for Tennessee, Friday’s game is an opportunity to win another game against a quality opponent and solidify its standing with the selection committee.
Six weeks ago, Tennessee was completely off the NCAA Tournament’s radar. The Vols were coming off a home loss to Georgia on February 6 and were sitting at 3-6 in league play and 11-10 overall. Since then, they have lost only at Georgia in reeling off wins in nine of 10 heading into Friday’s game. They stand 4-4 against RPI top-50 teams, and 9-9 against the top 100, with more quality wins – and fewer bad losses – than many of the teams they are competing with for a spot in the Tournament. Their only sub-100 losses are the two at the hands of Georgia. Virtually every bracketology projection has Tennessee in either its “first four in” or “first four out,” and it stands to reason that the Vols are straddling that line. They played two very close contests against Alabama earlier in the season – both games coming before they got on their current roll – losing by three in Tuscaloosa before pulling out a one-point win at home. Friday’s game likely will bring more of the same, and if Tennessee can win this rubber match between the two squads, it will be another quality win for the Vols to hang their hats on. It will also give them another shot at Florida, and even a competitive loss to the top-10 Gators wouldn’t hurt their resume.
With the way Tennessee has played over the past month, it’s a wonder how it struggled so mightily to get on track in its first 21 games. Other than a pre-conference win over Wichita State (RPI No. 38), and a near miss at Georgetown (the Vols lost 37-36 in one of the ugliest games of the year), the Vols’ resume was light. As Tennessee’s big three of point guard Trae Golden, first-team all-SEC forward McRae, and sophomore center Jarnell Stokes found their games, the Vols began to roll, and they earned wins against Kentucky, Florida, and Missouri, thus putting themselves back on the bubble. “I thought Tennessee was an NCAA Tournament team before we played them, and I definitely think that now. I don’t think they needed this win to validate that,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. “The one thing that you come away is just how physical they are. They make it hard for you to score and finish inside.” Martin wouldn’t argue with his good friend’s assessment. He referenced the team’s switch to primarily a four-guard lineup around the time the run of success started. “What it does is it gives Jarnell a chance to score around the rim, and helps with spacing. And we have guys [on the perimeter] who can score the basketball,” he said.
Whether the Vols do indeed “validate” what they’ve done down the stretch may depend on how the Alabama game turns out. Given what we’ve seen from past Selection Committees, this contest may not mean as much as we think, but Tennessee would be well-served to avoid yet another SEC Tournament disappointment by winning the game. Golden said after Thursday’s game that he is not concerned about the Vols’ bubble status. “That’s something we’re not thinking about right now. We’re just in the SEC Tournament trying to win a championship,” he said. While Tennessee would love to win that championship, which has eluded it for 33 years, the more important goal for the Vols this weekend is to make the Tournament that everyone cares about. If it takes care of business against Alabama on Friday, it will be that much closer to a bid that seemed far out of reach just 30 days ago.