UT now dancing on NCAA bubble

UT now dancing on NCAA bubble

February 22nd, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscollege

Georgia basketball coach Mark Fox did a little research during the Bulldogs' flight to Tennessee last Friday afternoon. And it had nothing to do with the Big Orange team his Bulldogs would defeat 24 hours later.

"I looked at it a little on the plane," Fox said when asked if he had begun to pay attention to NCAA tournament projections on various websites.

"They all talk about quality wins and top-50 wins. If you believe that the selection committee still values your entire body of work, then I think we're in good shape. But this [victory over UT] has to help."

Ah, the entire body of work. Some years the selection committee seems to give equal weight to every game on a team's schedule, from November forward. Other years, not so much.

For coach Bruce Pearl's Volunteers, it may become critically important that the committee look as favorably on their opening weeks as their closing run.

UT ran out to a 7-0 start that included eye-popping victories over Villanova in the championship game of the preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden and a SEC-Big East Challenge win over Pittsburgh in the Steel City, though not on the Panthers' home floor.

The Vols' biggest victories since then have come at home against Vanderbilt and on the road at Georgia in a span of four days in early January. But UT also has lost four of its last five games heading into tonight's SEC contest at Vanderbilt. The Vols host Mississippi State on Saturday.

"The teams we get this week are both contenders," Pearl said. "We scheduled up [for nonconference games]. It's helped our recruiting. We hope it helps us with the [NCAA tourney] committee."

Nothing helped the SEC with the tourney committee two years ago, when only three schools-UT, LSU and league tournament champ Mississippi State-made the field and only LSU lasted until the second round before being bounced by eventual national champ North Carolina.

With two weeks to go in this year's regular season, almost every projection has the SEC receiving six bids, as long as UT's swoon doesn't continue.

"Without question we're better," LSU coach Trent Johnson said Monday. "We've probably got six teams (Florida Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee) that deserve to be in."

ESPN analyst jay Bilas might question the term "deserve" for at least a third of the eventual 68-team field.

"The reality is, it may be difficult to find 68 teams that deserve to be there," Bilas said last month. "People talk about UCLA being a good team, and they certainly had a good loss at Kansas (77-76) in December. But a good team doesn't turn around the next game and lose to Montana."

Yet less than three weeks from Selection Sunday, the Bruins-who are 19-8 overall and 10-4 in the Pac-10-appear to be easily in the field.

Then there's the case of St. John's, which has lost to both St. Bonaventure and Fordham but has beaten Duke, Pitt, Notre Dame and UConn by an average of 13 points inside Madison Square Garden.

In a Big East that currently appears to have 10 bids and a possible 11th with Marquette, the Red Storm's nine seniors are in the top quarter of the league for first-year coach Steve Lavin.

But if you want the ultimate example of a watered-down field, consider Memphis. The Conference USA's Tigers have zero wins against any power conference team already projected to be in the tournament, have a lone respectable nonconference win over Gonzaga and have lost their three nonleague games to those who do appear to be in the field-Kansas, Georgetown and Tennessee-by an average of 17 points.

Yet respected ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Tigers in the field.

As for the Vols, Pearl's son Steven said he and his teammates aren't reading Lunardi's predictions-or anybody else's.

"I'm sure we are [on the bubble]," he said. "But worrying about it is just a distraction. With the schedule we play, as long as we win a couple of games, we should be OK. We just need a couple of separation games."

Nineteen days from Selection Sunday, the Vols are far from alone in that need.