From an outsider’s perspective, if a basketball team lost 83-58 to any team, it wouldn’t merit a possible berth in the NCAA Tournament for the losing squad.
However, that isn’t the case for men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes and the Vols.
That aforementioned 83-58 loss broke the Vols’ hearts on Valentine’s Day as the Wildcats got revenge for an earlier upset they suffered at the hands of Tennessee this season – an 82-80 Vols win in Thompson-Boling Arena on Jan. 24.
But while the Wildcats slayed any chance the Vols (14-12, 6-7 SEC) might have had of winning their fifth game in Rupp Arena over the past 50 years, it didn’t kill Tennessee’s hopes for the NCAA Tournament.
At least, not yet.
“We don’t go into games talking about the tournament,” sophomore forward Admiral Schofield said after the Kentucky game. “We know that we are a team that can definitely going to win four out of the next five or five out of the next five … We’re going to approach this one game at a time. We’re going to come out, play together, play inside-out basketball and just be aggressive.”
After winning five of six from Jan. 14-31, the Vols have dropped three of their last four to Mississippi State, Georgia and Kentucky. While the Wildcat loss can be overlooked, an absolute meltdown against 14-8 Mississippi State and simply being outplayed by 14-11 Georgia are a bit more blemishing to the Vols resume.
Although some of the Vols’ losses, such as North Carolina, Gonzaga, Wisconsin and Oregon, aren’t as detrimental to the big picture of making the tournament, earlier losses to Chattanooga and Ole Miss along with Mississippi State and Georgia hurt the Vols chances a bit more.
A win in one of those four games would likely have the Vols as a No. 9 or No. 10 seed.
“We gotta get back to playing like that team that’s on fire instead of that team with what seems like egos. We can’t have egos,” Schofield said. “We haven’t done anything in this league right now. Maybe where other people think we’ve surprised other people because of where they picked us, but we’ve got bigger goals than what others think of us.”
Despite losing three of four, the Vols are still being predicted to make the Big Dance by multiple outside sources. Joe Lunardi of ESPN, however, had the Vols as the first team in his First Four Out section. Fellow SEC team Arkansas was a part of Lunardi’s Last Four In squad.
Lunardi ranks the Vols 52nd in BPI (Basketball Power Index), 14th in SOS (strength of schedule) and 42nd in RPI (Ratings Power Index). RPI calculates a team’s strength of schedule mixed with how the team does against that schedule.
But Barnes isn’t worried about the rankings. He just wants to win.
“We’ve got five games left,” Barnes said after the UK loss. “I think we’ve got a chance to win all five of them, but if we play like we did tonight, we won’t win any of them. I think this league is a much better basketball league than what people give it credit for right now."
The first of those five games is at home against 7-17 (2-10) Missouri, a team that has struggled mightily all season. Next up would be a rematch with 12-13 (5-7) Vanderbilt. The Vols beat the Commodores in Nashville earlier this season, so Vandy may be eyeing some payback against its in-state foe.
Feb. 25 showcases the Vols traveling to Columbia, South Carolina, to rematch the 20-5 (10-2) Gamecocks, who have an RPI of 21. A win here would skyrocket the Vols chances of making the tournament. This is also the only game that wouldn’t put the Vol in crisis mode if they lost.
Four days later, the Vols will take on SEC cellar-dweller LSU (9-16, 1-12) on the road.
Tennessee’s schedule concludes in Thompson-Boling Arena on March 4 against Alabama (14-10, 7-5) before the SEC Tournament begins.
Five wins would almost guarantee the Vols a seed in the tournament. Four wins would be beneficial but the team would need to have a solid run in the SEC Tournament.
Anything else, and it’s likely the NIT for the Vols.
Still, don’t count Barnes and the Vols out. In Barnes’ 14 years coaching at Texas prior to coming to Tennessee, the Longhorns made the NCAA Tournament in all but one year.
“We put ourselves in a position that probably not many people put us in at the beginning of the season, and that’s good,” Barnes said referencing his team’s ability to sneak into the tournament. “Our young players right now have got to decide how big of a slice of the pie they want. It’s there, but this time of the year, you’ve got to take a win, learn from it and move and take a loss, learn from it and move on.
“You can’t let it linger.”