NASHVILLE - It's been fun being the University of Tennessee men's basketball team the past few weeks. No pressure. Few expectations. Pleasant surprise after pleasant surprise.
But after nine wins in 10 games, after feel-great home triumphs over Kentucky, Florida and Missouri -- not to mention that four-overtime triumph at Texas A&M -- in the past 28 days, the Volunteers' role is reversed against Alabama today.
If they beat the Crimson Tide for the second time in three tries at 3:30 EDT this afternoon in their Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinal in the Bridgestone Arena, it's hard to see the Big Orange being left out of the Big Dance.
Already returned to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi's coveted "Last Four In" quartet before Thursday's 69-53 win over Mississippi State, Tennessee would seem to seal its spot with a victory over the Tide. That should be the case for any team reaching an SEC tourney semifinal having won 10 of its last 11 contests against league opponents.
But this isn't like so many of the games that have gone before it during this unexpectedly delightful run. This is a game that figures to cause the Vols more anxiety than the Tide, if only because a loss could again leave them vulnerable in the eyes of the Oz-like selection committee.
Probably shouldn't. Maybe won't. But could.
Because in this wacky SEC season -- when three teams posted 12-6 league records and the Vols were one behind that at 11-7 -- a Bama win would leave UT (20-11 overall) with two losses against three teams (Alabama, Ole Miss and Georgia), while six-loss (in SEC action) Bama, Kentucky and Ole Miss would have conceivably suffered such a fate against no one.
If you're on the NCAA selection committee, doesn't that have to carry some weight? Especially when one of those teams that swept UT -- Georgia -- isn't even good enough to be on the NIT bubble, finishing with a losing record (15-17) after Thursday's first-half no-show against LSU.
As good as Tennessee has been of late, as tough as the Vols would appear to be against almost any of the NCAA tourney's invitees come next week, only a win over Alabama today would appear to end all doubt.
Only a win over Alabama can make UT bubble-proof.
The good news for Volniacs concerned about such things is that representatives of both UT and Mississippi State were saying all the right things about the Big Orange after Thursday's win.
From Bullies boss Rick Ray: "The one thing you come away with is just how physical they are. They just have the mentality that you may get to the rim, but you're going to have a difficult time finishing at the rim."
To that end, MSU finished with 24 points in the paint to 42 for the Vols.
But it wasn't just in the paint. The Vols held the Bulldogs to 21 percent shooting (3-of-14) from the 3-point line. They outrebounded MSU 35-33.
"Sometimes it seems like it's a skill within itself to get guys to play hard," UT coach Cuonzo Martin observed afterward. "You know, our guys did it to win the ballgame."
Martin's Vols almost always have done the energy thing well. Tennessee might lose because it can't shoot well enough, but it's hard to remember a time since Martin took over a year ago that UT has lost because it failed to play hard.
Or as point guard Trae Golden said when asked about worrying about the NCAA invitation: "All we've thought about is Mississippi State. Now all our focus is on Alabama."
But the most important thing in the Vols' corner today may be this. Said Martin in attempting to ignite his team prior to Thursday's win: "I told our guys that [MSU] was familiar with the rim and places on the floor, and they are coming off a win [over South Carolina on Wednesday]. Anything can happen in an environment like that."
Anything can. But after becoming familiar with the rims and the floor, UT should follow Thursday's win with another this afternoon. Then the pressure can fall to whomever the Vols draw in the opening round of the NCAA tournament sometime next week.