Rick Barnes, I think I’m ready to apologize.
After Tennessee shocked both Knoxville and the world with a giant upset of #4 Kentucky last night, it’s time to stop being polite and start getting real. Tennessee’s path to the NCAA Tournament is more realistic than you’d think.
Here’s the official Guide to Making the NCAA Tournament When You Didn’t Expect To At All.
1. Don’t lose more than seven conference games.
It’s been six full seasons since an SEC team made the NCAA Tournament with more than seven conference losses. That was Bruce Pearl’s final team in 2010-11, perhaps his most disappointing. They finished 8-8 in the SEC, but had a pair of giant out of conference wins over Villanova and Pittsburgh to get them into the Tournament. This year’s Tennessee team won’t have that; their best non-conference win is likely at East Tennessee State. ETSU is probably at about 40% odds to win their conference (UTC 45%), so it’s not a big help. Losing seven conference games puts you at 18-13, 11-7 overall.
2. Don’t lose more than 13 regular season games, counting the conference tournament.
It’s also been six seasons since a 14-loss team made the NCAA Tournament without winning their conference championship. 13 seems to be the solid cutoff point, without delving into RPI/schedule matters. This would require Tennessee to go 8-3 the rest of the way prior to the conference championship, allowing them to finish at 19-12, 11-7 or 12-6 overall.
3. Win at least 20 games.
This is huge if you’re a Big Six school. Even in this era of win inflation, getting to 20 is a great sign of making the Tournament. In the last five seasons, just seven teams have made the Tournament as an at-large with less than 20 wins (1.4 per year). Those teams usually have more impressive resumes than Tennessee does. Finishing the regular season at 19-12 means you win an SEC Tournament game, obviously. That would give you 20-13.
4. Every RPI point matters, so avoid meaningless matchups by finishing top four in the SEC.
If you finish top four, you don’t have to play the dregs of the league in the second round. This means avoiding potential matchups with Auburn, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and the like. Instead, an 11-7 or 12-6 finish likely gets you one of the top four seeds. Just once in the SEC’s four years of 14 teams has an 11-7 record not meant a top four seed. A 12-6 record would for sure clinch a top four bid. This way, you get to beat someone like Arkansas or Georgia, both of whom are firmly on the at-large bubble. That would help, too.
5. Tennessee needs more Top 50 wins.
The last seven major conference at-large teams in the First Four all had at least two wins over Top 50 teams on KenPom.com. That’s not bad at all! Unfortunately, prior to last night, Tennessee had yet to win a game against an RPI Top 50 team (now 1-8). Prior to the conference tournament, Tennessee will have four shots at wins: Kansas State at home on Saturday, hosting Georgia on February 11, at Kentucky on Valentine’s Day, and at South Carolina on February 25th. Kansas State and Georgia will obviously be the least difficult of those. It would be wise to take advantage. Tennessee doesn’t want to be the Good Losses team in March, as those teams have a very tough time getting in.
6. Avoid any terrible loss.
Tennessee has, to date, only suffered one loss to a team outside the RPI Top 50: Chattanooga in the season opener. Tennessee has four games remaining against the RPI Top 50 (Georgia and Kansas State really need to be wins), but seven games left against non-Top 50 teams. They really can’t afford to lose any of those if they want to be in Tournament discussion, and at the very most, they can lose one on the road to, like, Auburn.
So there you go – that’s how a team people lovingly call the Baby Vols is now in potential Tournament discussion. This article could be proven irrelevant by Saturday night, but I have a feeling it won’t be based on this team’s play.