The Vols are 16-5 (6-3), tied for second in the SEC, and host Ole Miss tomorrow (6:00 PM ET, SEC Network). The Rebels are 11-11 (4-5), 76th in KenPom, and yet to win on the road this year. They are probably a little better than their record: three of their home losses were in overtime, and two weeks ago they lost at Texas A&M by two and at Arkansas by four. But if the Vols can win their eighth game in nine tries, we’ll get to test the ceiling again next week at Kentucky and at Alabama.
We’ll save the larger conversation about Tennessee’s potential until then. For now, let’s put UT’s first three months in historical context.
A dozen Vol squads have made the NCAA Tournament since it went to 64 teams in 1985. Two of them won the SEC (a four-way tie in 2000 and outright in 2008). Jerry Green’s 1999 and 2000 teams earned a four seed in the NCAA Tournament; Bruce Pearl’s 2006 and 2008 squads earned a two seed. And of course, the 2010 squad made the program’s only Elite Eight from a six seed.
And all of them made it through January with less than six losses.
|Season||Record||Pct.||NCAA Seed||SEC||Sixth loss|
|2014||21-12 (11-7)||0.636||11||4th||January 18|
|2011||19-14 (8-8)||0.576||9||7th||January 11|
|2010||25-8 (11-5)||0.758||6||3rd||February 13|
|2009||21-12 (10-6)||0.636||9||2nd||January 24|
|2007||22-10 (10-6)||0.689||5||2nd||January 24|
|2006||21-7 (12-4)||0.750||2||2nd||March 1|
|2001||22-10 (8-8)||0.689||8||6th||February 10|
|2000||24-6 (12-4)||0.800||4||1st||SEC Tourn.|
|1999||20-8 (12-4)||0.714||4||2nd||February 2|
|1998||20-8 (9-7)||0.714||8||5th||February 11|
|1989||19-10 (11-7)||0.655||10||5th||February 1|
(Records listed from Selection Sunday)
By any metric, Rick Barnes’ team is having one of those years to this point.
Tennessee’s schedule is third nationally in KenPom; the Vols have been challenged without question. But the schedule hasn’t been as kind for fans wanting to get on board with this team. The Vols’ biggest win came the day before Thanksgiving with the football program in the midst of a coaching search. They hosted Auburn on January 2, long before anyone knew Auburn was this good. Then they caught Texas A&M after the Aggies had fallen out of the Top 25.
Three of Tennnessee’s nine SEC games earned the dreaded 9:00 PM tip-off slot, and two more are on the schedule. And, other than the Battle 4 Atlantis games, the Vols will be on ESPN or ESPN2 just five times this year (North Carolina, at Wake Forest, at South Carolina, at Kentucky, and Florida).
The Vols have the television schedule of a team picked to finish 13th in the SEC. And their overall conference schedule was not only easier, but front-loaded. If you were looking to get invested in this team and wanted to come to a big home game beyond January 13, the choices weren’t great: Vanderbilt, LSU, Ole Miss, South Carolina at 9:00 PM on a Tuesday, Florida at 9:00 PM on a Wednesday, or Georgia. The league office didn’t do this team any favors in that regard.
It may not feel the same because of the schedule, or because the coach doesn’t paint his chest, there’s no Chris Lofton and no soon-to-be NBA stars, and they’re not breaking a lengthy tournament drought like Jerry Green’s teams. But this team is on the same pace through three months that Tennessee’s best teams of the modern era have set. And with one more win tomorrow, we can spend the next week dreaming even bigger than an amazing first three months have allowed.