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Five ways Tennessee basketball can make the NCAA Tournament

Somehow more shockingly realistic for Tennessee than even the most positive fans think.

Tennessee’s game against Ole Miss was sort of a microcosm of the season. It was all Blue Ball Vols for the first 35 minutes. Then, after an atrocious out of bounds call, the Vols came alive and looked like the Wait How Are These Guys Really Good Now Vols we’ve gotten used to. Now at 14-10, 6-5 in SEC, they’ll be the favorites in five of their seven remaining games. Just by holding serve, a 19-12/11-7 finish should be good enough to go to the NCAA Tournament, regardless of SEC Tournament performance.

However, why not examine all the ways Tennessee can get in? There’s a wide range of outcomes when it comes to this year’s team and their postseason possibilities. I’ve arranged these below from most to least likely in terms of what to expect statistically. Defeating Georgia on Saturday would go a long way towards making some less likely options…likelier.

To make things even more fun, I’ve included RPI and SOS estimations from rpiforecast.com based on these potential scenarios. They’re not exact estimates, but they’ll give you an idea of a general range of ranking. The only path I examined that I left out was a 4-3 finish/1-1 SEC Tournament performance, which gave me a reading of First Four Out territory or worse. Tennessee’s five paths to the NCAA Tournament, below:

1. 5-2 finish to the season, one SEC Tournament win (20-13, 11-7 SEC; RPI 34, SOS 9; 100% in)

Similar teams: 2016 TTU, 2015 NC State, 2013 Minnesota, 2013 Illinois, 2011 MSU (average seed: 8.8)

Tennessee would defeat all remaining opponents not named Kentucky or South Carolina, both of whom are better teams. That would mean the aforementioned 19-12/11-7 finish and, based on KenPom’s conference record projections, the #4 seed in the SEC Tournament. Tennessee would 100% make the NCAA Tournament in this scenario.

If everything went to plan, 5 seed Alabama would defeat 12 seed Mississippi State. For the second time in less than a week, Tennessee would defeat Alabama to play Kentucky the next day. We’re going to assume they lose that hypothetical game. No Big Six team with an RPI higher than 38 has been left out of the NCAA Tournament.

2. 4-3 finish, 2-1 in SEC Tournament (20-14, 10-8 SEC; RPI 42, SOS 9; ~60% in)

Similar teams: similar to 2011 Penn State, 2013 Illinois, 2014 Tennessee, 2014 Minnesota, 2015 NC State, 2016 Wisconsin (average seed: 9.5)

For this study, I picked Vanderbilt to be the third loss, mostly because Vanderbilt is playing good basketball at the moment. Replace it with a similar team and you get similar numbers. Anyway, this puts Tennessee closer to the cutline, but they’re still likely in. The win over Alabama would most likely push them over the top. I don’t love the average seed on this as I’d expect this to be more of a First Four resume. Dayton is…okay, I guess.

3. 5-2 finish, 0-1 in SEC Tournament (19-13, 11-7 SEC; RPI 40, SOS 14; ~70% in)

Similar teams: 2015 Texas, 2014 Stanford, 2014 Tennessee, 2013 Colorado, 2013 Oklahoma, 2011 Illinois (average seed: 10.2)

This is dangerous. Assuming the SEC Tournament loss is Alabama, Tennessee would go from safely in the field and above the First Four line to in danger. They’d be relying on other bubble teams to screw up. It’s a garbage position to be in. Vols fans remember all too well how this felt in 2013 after Tennessee blew a Tournament bid with a loss to Alabama. A repeat four years later would be a ball-buster.

4. 4-3 or 5-2 finish, beat Kentucky in SEC Tournament (3-1 or 2-1 run) (RPI 34, SOS 9 OR RPI 29, SOS 8; 100% in)

Average seed for 4-3/3-1: 8.8; 5-2/2-1: 7.7

This won’t happen, but it would be nice, wouldn’t it? The committee traditionally gives hot end-of-season teams more love, and Tennessee would qualify with a deep conference tournament run. The second Kentucky win? Giant. A 7 seed would be likely.

5. Win the SEC Tournament (22-12, 11-7 SEC; RPI 25, SOS 6)

Average seed: 6.3

LOL! There’s no chance this ever happens. If it didn’t happen when the 2009 Vols only had to beat Rick Stansbury and Mississippi State, it’s never happening. I was so excited for that game, too. Anyway, Tennessee would obviously be the hottest team in the entire field at this point.

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