Mark Wiedmer: Basketball Vols need more wins to be NCAA sure

Mark Wiedmer: Basketball Vols need more wins to be NCAA sure

March 13th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee guard Quinton Chievous (31) celebrates a 3-pointer while Missouri forward Tony Criswell (3) looks on during their NCAA basketball game Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

As ESPN college basketball analyst Jimmy Dykes left Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena early last Saturday evening after the Volunteers' emotional win over Missouri, he was asked which Southeastern Conference teams should be expected to join Florida in the NCAA tournament.

"I think Tennessee's in and Kentucky's in," Dykes said.

Asked about Mizzou, which was 2-7 on the road in league games, the former Kentucky assistant coach said, "I think Missouri's been in for some time."

If you check out Jerry Palm's projected NCAA bracket on CBS's website, you'll find those exact four SEC teams reaching the Big Dance, with Tennessee and Kentucky headed for Dayton, Ohio, early next week for the "First Four" contests.

But ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi provides a less satisfying bracket for the SEC. According to Joey Brackets, Tennessee is currently among the first four out.

Also out, according to both Palm and Lunardi, are Alabama and Ole Miss, though both posted the same league mark as second-place Kentucky (12-6).

So what needs to happen when the SEC tournament begins tonight in Nashville to assure that UT's in the NCAA field, and possibly Alabama and Ole Miss?

First, the Vols must win their opening game Thursday afternoon against the winner between South Carolina and Mississippi State. Otherwise, the Big Orange Nation must brace for a second straight trip to the NIT.

After that, it would seem Cuonzo Martin's bunch must beat Alabama for a second time in three meetings before probably facing Florida in Saturday's semifinals. Conversely, should Bama beat the Vols, the Tide might go dancing and UT pull out its NIT-ting needles.

Given the liquid nature of the 68-team NCAA field at this point -- remember, UT was supposed to be in the field after Saturday's win over Mizzou -- nothing would seem certain to place the Vols in the field short of a win over Florida.

Beat Florida and the Vols are definitely in.

As for Kentucky, the Wildcats currently may be on the inside looking out, but to ensure their admission, they will have to win their opener against the Arkansas-Vandy winner and would be wise to win their semifinal game against the likely matchup of Mizzou and Ole Miss.

Nor should anyone count out the Rebels if they beat the Tigers and Wildcats. Ole Miss has been in the field more than out since New Year's, and two more victories would make it quite difficult to rebuff them.

One man's argument against Mizzou clearly being in: Yes, the Tigers defeated Illinois in December when that still meant something. But they also lost to Louisville by 23 on a neutral court whereas UK lost by three at Louisville. And if you're choosing one SEC school over another, shouldn't that 2-7 league mark work against Missouri when both UK and UT were 4-5.

Of course, the only reason most of these scenarios must be discussed is because both Palm and Lunardi continue to be convinced that both Illinois and Minnesota are in the field despite losing Big Ten marks (8-10) and struggles down the stretch. The Illini lost three of their last four and the Gophers lost six of their last nine, with three of their final four defeats coming by 16 or more points.

Once again, if you can't finish .500 or better in your league, you don't deserve to go to the Big Dance. Period.

But assuming Lunardi and Palm both are correctly predicting that the Big East will land a preposterous eight bids and the Big Ten seven, the SEC will find it hard to send more than four to March Madness.

And if that's true, Tennessee would appear to need two SEC tourney wins to feel good about making the NCAA field. Unless, of course, the Vols can figure out a way for Dykes instead of the Selection Committee to choose the NCAA tourney's 37 at-large teams.