RACE FOR FOURTH
Before Mississippi State's loss to Kentucky on Tuesday night, four teams were tied for fourth in the SEC standings, a spot that carries with it a first-round bye in the league's tournament. In case of a tie with more than two teams, the tiebreaker process is combined record against the other tied teams, followed by head-to-head records. Here's a breakdown of who's got whom left on the schedule in the race for fourth and a bye.
LSU (6-6): Georgia, at Ole Miss, Tennessee, at Auburn.
Alabama (6-6): at Arkansas, Mississippi State, Auburn, at Ole Miss
Tennessee (6-6): Ole Miss, at South Carolina, at LSU, Vanderbilt
Mississippi State (6-7): at Alabama, at South Carolina, Arkansas
Ole Miss (5-7): at Tennessee, LSU, at Arkansas, Alabama
Arkansas (5-7): Alabama, at Auburn, Ole Miss, at Mississippi State
KNOXVILLE - The approach must stay the same, though the distractions increase.
A glance at the calendar could turn into more looks at team resumes, RPI rankings, league standings and others' respective schedules. Such is the nature of late February in college basketball with the postseason approaching.
It's a trap, though, that Tennessee is trying to avoid with SEC-tournament seeding and beyond at stake with just four regular-season games remaining.
"I think you see a lot more people trying to figure where they're going to be at the end of the season," Volunteers guard Skylar McBee said Tuesday. "You can kind of work the numbers a little bit better because you can see who has to go play at this place and who's got who and what teams you've got left. But I think it's a mindset you've got to have every day that, 'I know I can't look forward.'
"We've just got to take care of business one day at a time, and I think if we keep trying to get better, then everything else will take care of itself."
The first order of business for the Vols is tonight's game against visiting Ole Miss. UT is part of the logjam in the middle of the SEC standings, and the final first-round bye for the league tournament in New Orleans is up for grabs. The Vols are tied for fourth with Alabama and LSU at 6-6, a half game ahead of Mississippi State, which lost to Kentucky on Tuesday night, and a full game ahead of Ole Miss and Arkansas.
First-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin said "without a doubt" he'd have taken a tie for fourth in late February if offered it before the season.
"Because there was so many unknowns," he said. "[When] guys are trying to find their way, it's hard to go into a season saying, 'Let's finish first in this league.' You don't know what you have. Because we've put ourselves in that position, I would take it any day of the week, but I still feel like there were games we lost that we could have won."
Winning out against Ole Miss, South Carolina, LSU and Vanderbilt would put the Vols at 10-6 in the league, a record that only one team (Alabama last season) has reached and not made the NCAA tournament. While UT does have three wins against teams ranked in the RPI top 50, the Vols' low RPI (111), four losses against teams outside the top 100 and five wins against teams ranked 200th or lower blemish their candidacy.
The Vols have a win against Division II Chaminade, which most postseason tournament selection committees would not count. Only one .500 team has reached the National Invitation Tournament, which also rewards mid-major conference regular-season champions who lose in their respective conference tournaments with automatic bids. Whether it's the NCAA tournament or the NIT, the Vols see value in any kind of postseason opportunity.
"Of course you want to go and play as long as you can play and do the best you can do," McBee said. "We really are just trying to take it one game at a time. None of that's going to matter if we start dropping games right now. We're just trying to take it one game at a time."
Martin saw the positives of the postseason while at Missouri State. In his second season there as coach, the Bears won the Collegeinsider.com tournament and benefited from extra practice time and games. He believes Missouri State carried over the momentum into next season, when the Bears won the regular-season Missouri Valley Conference title.
"I think more than anything it's important to continue to play games," he said. "It helps you grow and get better. I thought it really helped us."
With much of his first UT team set to return next season, there's some value for the Vols in making any kind of postseason tournament.
"We have to go into these games and know that these teams are just as hungry as we are," point guard Trae Golden said. "If we know that and execute the way we know we can, we'll be fine."