Tennessee needs that game with Florida to be rescheduled. Otherwise, what’s left for the Vols – at Vanderbilt, at Auburn, and a possible reschedule at South Carolina – provides little in the way of opportunity but plenty in the way of potholes on the road. In the 28 brackets released after the loss to Kentucky in the Bracket Matrix, Tennessee’s average seed is 5.14. The five line is perilous in its own right, where you’ll face some of the best mid-major teams in the nation as 12 seeds. It also puts you in the potential path of Gonzaga or Baylor in the Sweet 16. But if the Vols don’t get another chance at a quality win via the Gators, I’m not sure if they can get back to the three line without winning the SEC Tournament.
It’s a different set of conversations than the ones we were having at 10-1 (4-1) on January 16, when Tennessee’s only loss was to a hot-shooting and surging Alabama team and the Vols were ranked sixth in both AP and KenPom. Since then Tennessee is 5-5, and it’s been weird along the way.
For instance: one of the biggest questions we had with this team, full of freshmen and absent Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden, was who takes the big shot at the end of games? Turns out, we haven’t really needed that answer. Through 21 games, the Vols have played just two one-possession contests: a 56-53 win over Mississippi State, and a 52-50 loss at Ole Miss.
I went back through each of Tennessee’s nine (soon to be 10) NCAA Tournament teams in the last 15 years. They averaged seven one-possession (or overtime) games per year, and only Cuonzo Martin’s last team (four) and Bruce Pearl’s first team (two) played less than six. True to form, things get harder as you get into March: plenty of those teams added multiple one-possession games in the NCAA Tournament. Pearl’s first team played no one-possession games until a March 1 loss to Kentucky in Knoxville, then Chris Lofton’s shot over Winthrop.
So there’s still time to find some answers to that question, but so far the 2021 Vols have won comfortably or lost uncomfortably. Add “very” in many cases. With 2-4 SEC games to play, the Vols have five conference wins by 10+ points. Among those recent Tennessee tournament teams, only 2008 (8), 2014 (9), and 2019 (12) had more in the regular season.
And, with 2-4 SEC games to play, the Vols have three conference losses by 10+ points. Among those recent Tennessee tournament teams, only 2007 and 2010 had more (four each).
The 2021 Vols have three 10+ point wins over KenPom Top 50 opponents (Missouri, Kansas, Kentucky). Only 2007 (4) and 2019 (5) had more. The 2008 team only had one. The Elite Eight squad two years later only had two.
It’s not all bad with this team, not at all. There’s just not much middle right now. Through some combination of covid, freshmen, and just this team, Tennessee either plays really well or really not. This, of course, is a recipe for losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. So along with stringing together a few wins against Vanderbilt, Auburn, and South Carolina, you’d also like to see this team beat two good teams in a row in the SEC Tournament. I thought Rick Barnes’ quote after Kentucky when asked if this team didn’t handle adversity well was a good one:
“I don’t know if I would say they don’t handle adversity. I don’t think they’ve handled success very well. When you feel like you’re getting things going, you feel like we’re turning the corner — that shows up more, I think if you saw practice, you would see some of that. But I would say this too: That goes back to really leadership within the framework of what we’re trying to do. Some of that, we talked about, has got to come from within the players. I would say more (than) the adversity, I don’t think we’ve handled success very well. I really don’t.
The Vols need to get healthy, for sure. They may not have a ton of opportunities left to build their resume, but they can certainly level out in the good way.