His tenacious team flush with pride following a victory over Florida on Tuesday, Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin said of his Vols' NCAA Tournament chances:
"Is this one of the (best) 68 teams? Without a doubt, but... we have to keep it out of someone else's hands. Let's control the situation."
Not to dispute Martin entirely, because his second UT team is clearly one of the best 68 squads in the land, but other than winning the SEC Tournament -- which the Vols last did in 1979 -- the Big Orange's fate is somewhat out of its hands from this point forward.
Yes, they can control their situation better than most so-called "bubble teams" by winning their last three regular-season conference games, then winning at least two SEC-tournament games.
Do that, and it would be extremely hard for the NCAA tournament selection committee to keep their hands off the Vols come Selection Sunday on March 17.
Yet even then their postseason fate is somewhat in the hands of the rest of the NCAA's 347 Division teams, bubble teams such as the Big Orange always vulnerable to the four-day wonder who comes from nowhere to win its league tourney, forcing the committee to decide whether a truly deserving team such as, say, Memphis in Conference USA, should be left home because of one bad game in an otherwise sterling season.
After all, under the current tournament format, there are 31 automatic bids -- one per conference -- and 37 at-large invites. Unless the Vols win the SEC tourney, they're technically competing with more than 300 schools for those 37 invites.
In reality they're probably battling about 50 schools for those 37 spots, and UT's current RPI and strength of schedule numbers -- 53 and 26, respectively, according to RealTime RPI -- certainly put the Vols in the mix. Within the SEC, they currently trail only Florida and Kentucky, and the Wildcats (46/48) must yet host Florida next weekend.
Let the Vols win out and UK lose at least once more in league play and UT could easily be the second SEC school chosen, winding up as a 9, 10 or 11 seed, which would surely thrill no one paired against them in the opening round.
As Florida coach Billy Donovan said late Tuesday of UT's talent: "(Trae) Golden is as good of a point guard as there is. (Jordan) McRae as emerged to be, to me, maybe the best wing player in the league, (Jarnell) Stokes is clearly one of the best front court players. They have depth... they're a very talented team."
But that talent has been late to jell. It wasn't that long ago that the Vols stood 3-6 in the SEC before embarking on their current six-game conference winning streak.
Beyond that, while there's nothing wrong with losing to Oklahoma State, Georgetown, Memphis and Virginia out of conference, those pre-SEC defeats cast early doubt on whether or not the Vols were NCAA tourney worthy.
Again, Donovan: "I think teams get labeled in November and December and, unfortunately, those labels stick with you throughout the entire year."
In other words, college basketball is not as much removed from the preseason importance of college football rankings as it might like.
Still, the sport does have its conference tournaments to give even the lowliest among it a chance, and it does stage a real playoff to determine its champ.
Just to be safe, however, just to make certain that the No. 8 team in the Big East (Villanova, 18-11/9-7) or the No. 7 squad in the Big Ten (Minnesota, 19-9, 7-8) doesn't keep them out, UT, UK, Missouri, Ole Miss and, possibly, Alabama need to win every game possible between now and Selection Sunday, less the SEC finish behind every other BCS conference in bids.
In fact, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi is already projecting the league to place but four in the field -- currently Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and Ole Miss -- which would not only make them last among BCS conferences, but also equal to the Mountain West.
All of which brings us to next Saturday, March 9, inside Thompson-Boling Arena, the Vols hosting Missouri. What better timing than a game against Show Me State U., to help show the selection committee which SEC team should be in and which should be out.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...