Wiedmer: Vols have legitimate NCAA shot

Wiedmer: Vols have legitimate NCAA shot

February 29th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscollege

Tennessee forward Jordan McRae (52) shoots over Arkansas guard Rickey Scott (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Adam Brimer)

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Two weeks from today, the NCAA men's basketball tournament will have already claimed its first two victims following an opening night of play-in games in Dayton, Ohio.

It's highly unlikely but vaguely possible that one of those eight teams sent to Dayton could become the Tennessee Volunteers. They might not even have to win the Southeastern Conference tournament next week in New Orleans to get there.

But to avoid that daunting task of capturing just their second SEC tourney since 1979, the Vols must win their next four contests leading up to the tourney title game, beginning with tonight's road game at LSU.

Beat both the Tigers and Vanderbilt in Saturday afternoon's home finale and the Vols will stand 10-6 with a first-round bye for the league tourney.

Win two there and they could probably lose to Kentucky in the title game and still earn an invitation to the Big Dance. Not would. At least not definitely. But could.

And how's that going to happen, you quite fairly ask, when Cuonzo Martin's first UT team is just 15-13 overall and carries a current RPI ranking of 92 and a schedule strength of 34?

How can a team that wouldn't even appear to be an NIT lock, if all you looked at was its record, become viewed as one of the 68 best teams in the land?

Try this bubble on for size:

LSU stood 70th in the RPI Tuesday evening, so winning there would not only give the Vols their third road win in their last four attempts but likely would move them to at least the low 80s in the RPI.

Next up is Vanderbilt, whose RPI stood at 22 on Tuesday prior to its 77-67 win over Florida. Knock off the Commodores and UT wouldn't just have its 10th SEC victory of the year -- once thought the maximum needed to secure an NCAA bid, but more on that in a minute -- but would lock up the Vols' fourth victory against top-40 foes. The others were a sweep of Florida and a defeat of defending national champ UConn.

It would also deliver the Big Orange their eighth win in their last nine games and guarantee a bye in the SEC tourney. Now let that streak become 10 victories in 11 contests heading into the league tourney final and the Selection Committee could have a serious decision on its hands regarding the Vols.

There's also the Jarnell Stokes factor to consider. Since Stokes joined the team for the second semester after graduating from high school early in Memphis, the Vols are 8-5 in games he's played, with four of the five losses coming against schools expected to make the field -- twice to Kentucky, at Vanderbilt and at Alabama. UT lost at Georgia in his second game.

None of those setbacks could remotely be considered bad -- especially given Georgia's win over Florida last week. Moreover, the Vols' three-point loss to top-ranked UK in early January remains the Wildcats' second closest victory of the season, just behind a one-point win over North Carolina.

And given that the home loss to UK also was Stokes' first action of the year, the committee could easily view the arrival of Stokes as it might a player who's been inactive because of injury.

After all, with the 6-foot-8 rookie on the floor, the Vols stand 8-5. Without him they're 7-8. Think he hasn't helped?

But can they realistically make the NCAA tourney? Though the committee somewhat turned up its nose last season at the SEC by ignoring Bama's 12-4 league record, only two other SEC schools have won as many as 10 league games and failed to make the field -- both Auburn and South Carolina in 2009.

But Bama played the beasts of the SEC East -- Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Tennessee, NCAA participants all -- only once each, and neither South Carolina nor Auburn reached the 2009 SEC tourney title game.

Let the Vols merely earn a bye to the SEC tourney, then fight their way to the title game and it's hard to see them being denied an NCAA tourney spot, even if it's only as a 12th or 13th seed in the play-in games.

"We're fighting for our lives," Martin said Monday.

Yet the very fact that a UT team picked 11th in the league in the preseason still has a postseason pulse at the dawn of March just might be the biggest, best story of the SEC season.