Tennessee fans knew the 2020 NCAA Tournament would be a long-shot before the season, and the road has only gotten bumpier since then.
Coming off a season that saw the Vols reach the top ranking in the country for four weeks and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, head coach Rick Barnes’ new squad isn’t finding near the same success as the Grant Williams-led team brought in.
The Vols are 12-8 on the season at the end of January, with inconsistent play being the main story line of this young team. After losing senior guard Lamonte Turner in December, Tennessee has relied on the likes of John Fulkerson, Yves Pons, and transfer teammates Santiago Vescovi and Uros Plavsic to carry the load.
But even with off-season improvements and in-season roster additions, this team just hasn’t had the legs to compete with the nation’s best week in and week out this year.
If history has anything to say in regard to the Vols’ current season, with only eleven regular season games remaining, Tennessee is in desperate need of a miracle to make the NCAA Tournament.
For the tournament, teams are selected using two grouping methods. First, all teams that win their conference tournament receive an automatic bid, which takes up 32 spots. Then, with the remaining 36 spots, teams are selected for an at-large bid, which takes the 36 best teams in college basketball that did not win their conference.
Starting with the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, over the last five years, only 14 percent (26 out of the 180) of at-large bid teams finished the regular season with 12 or more losses.
Of those 26 teams, 20 finished with 12 regular season losses, three finished with 13 losses, and three finished with 14 losses. So, at bare minimum, Tennessee can only lose four more games to even have a glimpse of hope down the final stretch of the season.
According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the Vols have above a 50 percent chance to win six out of their final 11 games. These wins are projected to be in all of Tennessee’s remaining home games, against Kentucky, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Florida, and Auburn.
Anyone who has watched a Tennessee game this season may have some reservations in regard to a few of those games, but in this hypothetical situation, that leaves Tennessee with a projected 18-13 finish to the season. Only 3 percent of at-large teams since 2015 have had 13 or more losses.
Ultimately, the Vols need to go 7-4 down the stretch at worst in order to have any kind of shot at the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee is certainly on the outside looking in on the tournament, and most major predictions have them there in their latest March Madness projections. ESPN and Bleacher Report currently have the Vols projected as the fifth team out of the tournament. Meanwhile, CBS Sports has the Vols on the cusp as the first team out.
Are Tennessee’s chances at making the NCAA Tournament impossible? No, not theoretically. If Tennessee somehow can manage to go 7-4 or better over its next 11 games and even get an unexpected win or two in the SEC Tournament, then they will be at least in the conversation.
But even then, all but one remaining game for the Big Orange will be against a team currently ranked higher than them in the SEC standings. The outlier, of course, is Vanderbilt.
In the end, it will be an unbelievably steep hill to climb over the next few weeks. Tennessee will have to truly transform its current team if they want to take down the likes of Kentucky, Auburn, and Arkansas consistently and prove they deserve to be in the tournament.
I am not a betting man, but if I was, I’d be gearing up for the NIT Tournament to potentially make a stop through Knoxville this year. Quite the underwhelming consolation prize after a Sweet 16 berth last year.
The 12-8 Tennessee Volunteers will close out the year at Mississippi State, at Alabama, against Kentucky, against Arkansas, at South Carolina, against Vanderbilt, at Auburn, at Arkansas, against Florida, at Kentucky, and against Auburn.