Tennessee goes for its sixth ranked win of the year at #25 Texas A&M on Tuesday night. The Vols, in fact, are 5-1 against the Top 25 this year (and 4-1 against the Top 15), the lone loss at #9 Arizona. Tennessee got it done against #3 Kansas, #13 Maryland, #10 Texas, #25 Auburn, and #1 Alabama.
It’s frustrating, of course, to get such good results against the best of your schedule, but also have an additional six losses. It’s unusual to be so good against the Top 25 but be 0-2 against a Kentucky team outside it. The Vols are 4-2 in what Bart Torvik defines as Quad 1A games; the only team in the nation with a better winning percentage vs Quad 1A is Arizona at 5-0. And, of course, the Vols have four Quad 2 losses.
We’re 27 games in now, so in part we know what we’ll know about this team. But we’ve also seen injuries mess with Tennessee’s ability to run with a consistent best five for more than a few games at a time. Most recently, only the stretch from at LSU on January 21 to Josiah-Jordan James’ injury at Vanderbilt on February 8 featured the Vols at full availability.
With JJJ and Julian Phillips still day-to-day, we don’t know for sure when we’ll see that full strength again, or how strong it will be. That makes it harder to say this team can find its best basketball late purely through lineup solidification, though it has been done here before (2010, our only appearance in the Elite Eight).
Still, the frustration of losing – in particular, to Kentucky and at the buzzer – can outweigh what has been a really strong regular season run for this team by our own historical standards.
Ranked wins don’t mean everything, and mean less in college basketball, where tournament wins are king. But I’m still a proponent of celebrating every meaningful opportunity, and ranked wins provide the best metric for that in the moment. We just finished a football season where the Vols tied 1998 with wins over six ranked teams. That’s not where you start the conversation on the accomplishments of last fall, a journey that included and ended with the Vols in the national championship conversation and a belief they can be there again.
But it was the most fun you could have along the way.
So, in the “don’t forget to have fun” department, consider this: since the AP poll expanded to 25 teams in 1989, I count only three Tennessee Basketball teams to have ever beaten more ranked teams than this one. Shout out, as always, to the media guide:
- 2000: The eventual SEC Champions and first Vol squad to make the modern Sweet 16 beat six ranked opponents, all after January 1: #21 LSU, #9 Florida in double overtime, #7 Auburn by 29 points, #12 Florida in single overtime, #18 Kentucky, and #20 UConn a 4/5 Round 2 game.
- 2007: Chris Lofton turned an ankle, and this team lost six of eight from January 10 through February 3. Otherwise, they went 22-5 with ranked wins over #16 Memphis in Lofton’s barrage, #15 Oklahoma State on the Dane Bradshaw tip-in, #23 Vanderbilt, #20 Kentucky, #25 Alabama, and the defending champs from #5 Florida. They also beat an unranked Texas team in a game you might’ve heard of, and lost by one point to #1 Ohio State in the Sweet 16.
- 2022: That’s right: last season has the record with seven ranked wins. The Vols got #18 North Carolina, #6 Arizona, #13 LSU, #4 Kentucky, #3 Auburn, #14 Arkansas, then #5 Kentucky in the SEC Tournament.
So right now, put the last two years together and you’ve got a dozen ranked wins. To find a dozen ranked wins before that, you need five seasons (2017-2021). The two-year high in the Bruce Pearl era was 10 in 2007 and 2008.
So yes, March wins will always count most. But as it’s not March yet, we can’t solve that problem today. What the Vols can do is get healthy and make progress, whatever degree the one relates to the other. And, along the way, we might find more reasons to celebrate…starting tomorrow night.