Tennessee 69 Kentucky 62: Degree of Difficulty

In KenPom, the distance between the second-best team in the country (Arizona) and the 12th-best team (Villanova) is 2.67 points. It’s an abnormal amount of parity, one that leaves little separation between the bottom of the #1 seed line and the #3 line. It’s why I’ve thought, for a while now, that where the Vols are seeded and sent matters less this year. We’ve got the wins to prove it.

We got another one today. It’s Tennessee’s third Top 5 win of the year, and the seventh of Rick Barnes’ tenure. The margins are thin, but in KenPom the team right behind Arizona at #3 is still Kentucky. That gives the Vols three wins over two of the best teams in the nation.

I don’t know where the Vols are going to play after tomorrow; specifically, can they pass Duke and/or Auburn to get first and second round games in Greenville, SC? I don’t know where the Vols are going to be seeded; specifically, are we still having conversations about them at #3? Could they still get to even #1?

Here’s what I do know: wherever they’re sent, wherever they’re seeded, I’m not sure they’re going to be asked to get a tougher win than the one they got today. At least not until we’d be talking about breaking new ground as a program. If Gonzaga is so much better than everyone else, so be it: the Vols won’t see them until the Elite Eight at the earliest.

The SEC Tournament is in Nashville the next three years. That would’ve been fun today, with Kentucky and Tennessee going at it on the weekend for the third time in the last four tournaments. In Tampa, there was more blue, to their credit. To Tennessee’s credit, every time they raised their voices, I’d look up and realize we were still up at least two possessions, and usually more.

Kentucky cut it to six with 16:28 to play. The Vols scored on their next three possessions, including buckets from Uros Plavsic and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. The Vols were up 14 with 8:50 to go, but Kentucky cut it to eight in 41 seconds. Enter Kennedy Chandler: bucket, steal, bucket.

Chandler was there again when Kentucky cut it to six with 5:36 to go, answering immediately on the other end. He stuck two free throws with 2:40 to go that put the Vols up 12. And when it got hectic in the final minutes, and Chandler maybe followed suit…Santiago Vescovi was there to grab the rebound, ensuring Kentucky never had a possession with a chance to tie or take the lead.

Tennessee beat Arizona, LSU, Kentucky, Auburn, and Arkansas at Thompson-Boling Arena. Today, they beat Kentucky in the SEC Tournament semifinals. Again.

I don’t know where the Vols will be seeded. Here’s what I do know:

  • Kansas has 11 Quad 1 wins, 12 if they finish off a Big 12 Tournament title. Gonzaga, Baylor, and Tennessee are the only other teams with 10.
  • Tennessee’s strength of schedule is rated fifth nationally in KenPom. The Vols remain undefeated against Quads 2-4 (if Texas A&M beats us tomorrow, they’ll move into Quad 1).
  • Tennessee is now 10-7 against Kentucky under Rick Barnes.

And I know we haven’t won the SEC Tournament in my lifetime. And I know the last time we played this game, we lost to Auburn by 20 on Sunday. John Fulkerson knows too, he was there.

I know everything is about the NCAA Tournament, and I know you have to find meaningful celebration before then since everyone loses but the champion. And this Tennessee team just keeps making memories, and those memories can give them as good of a chance to advance as we’ve ever seen.

I don’t know how much more challenging it’ll get than today. But today gives Tennessee a chance to make tomorrow even more meaningful.

1:00 PM ET, ESPN for the SEC Tournament Championship on Selection Sunday.

Go Vols.

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