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Tennessee had a good enough week in the Bahamas to enter the also receiving votes portion of both polls: 34th in the AP, 46th in the Coaches’, plus 34th in KenPom. The Vols are also 34th in RPI, which doesn’t mean much this early in the year, but are currently projected to end the season with an RPI of 52 by RPI Forecast. That projection is fluid too, it’s noteworthy that their projections also include the Vols going just .500 in the SEC and still flirting with the RPI Top 50.
The league is much, much stronger this year, with eight teams in the KenPom Top 50 right now. Again, RPI is fluid this early, but right now the SEC is the best conference in college basketball by their ratings. Going 9-9 in this SEC will be a much bigger challenge and a much better accomplishment (also, much more entertaining to watch over 18 games).
We’ll get to all that later, I point all this out simply to show how the conversation has already changed after Tennessee’s wins over #18 Purdue and NC State, plus a close call with #5 Villanova. One-sixth of the way through the regular season, and it’s less about, “Can Tennessee be a bubble team?” and more of, “How can this team play its way above the cut line?”
That blueprint not only includes .500-or-better ball in the SEC and probably splitting the major non-conference games remaining (at Georgia Tech this Saturday, vs North Carolina December 17, at Wake Forest December 23, at Iowa State in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge). It also includes taking care of the mid-major business you should take care of…and the toughest of those challenges will be tonight.
Mercer is 85th in KenPom, the best team in the Southern Conference by a healthy margin in those ratings. They have a pair of nine-point losses to Central Florida and Colorado around five low-ranking victories. Last year they disappointed at 15-17, but returned four of their five leading scorers.
The name to know tonight is Ria’n Holland, if he plays after missing the last game with an ankle injury. The 6’0″ guard averages 20.2 points per game and is 21-of-37 (56.8%) from the arc this year. The next leading scorer averages nearly 10 points less per game.
This is an experienced Mercer bunch, but so are the Vols. This game should be as much about Tennessee’s fight against complacency and inconsistency as Mercer – if the Vols are going where they want to go, they’ll go through Mercer in Knoxville.
7:00 PM ET, SEC Network+ online.