KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's men's basketball program hasn't had many weeks like this recently.
After getting back on track following a brutally disappointing loss at Ole Miss with an easy win against Mississippi State, the Volunteers twice seized the opportunity for marquee wins and delivered excellent performances in victories against Southeastern Conference power Kentucky and Big 12 upstart Kansas State.
As a consequence of the two wins, the Vols are trending toward entering the NCAA tournament discussion.
"I'm just worrying about the next game," freshman forward Grant Williams said after Saturday's 70-58 win against Kansas State, "because the tournament comes during March, and we have a whole other month to get through."
Nevertheless, it's remarkable that at the end of January the NCAA tournament bubble is a legitimate talking point for Tennessee (12-9, 4-4), which was picked to finish 13th in the 14-team SEC.
Winners of four of their past five games, the Vols face road trips to Auburn and Mississippi State this week before hosting Georgia and Ole Miss next week ahead of the rematch with Kentucky in Lexington on Valentine's Day. Tennessee could win all four or lose all four and neither would necessarily qualify as a surprise, but it feels like the Vols have turned the corner.
"I feel like we're becoming more mature and more poised," Williams said, "because in the beginning of the year, we didn't really know what it took to win, as Coach (Rick Barnes) would say. I feel like we have a better idea of what it takes. We've just got to keep it consistent rather than winning a couple games in a row and letting a game slip by and trying to do it again."
Kentucky and Kansas State are the third- and 29th-ranked teams according to analyst Ken Pomeroy's latest ratings, and the Vols have six wins against teams in the top 90 of the NCAA's all-important Ratings Percentage Index. Last month's win against Georgia Tech looks stronger given the Yellow Jackets' surprising exploits in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and since losing to Tennessee at home, Vanderbilt has beaten Florida and Iowa State.
The Vols can play the what-if game, too. Holding on to the lead at North Carolina in December would have given them one of the best nonconference road wins in college basketball. If not for letting double-digit leads slip in losses to Arkansas at home and at Ole Miss, they would be a game out of first place in the SEC standings.
According to SEC Network analyst Dane Bradshaw, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi said Tennessee — 41st in the RPI thanks to playing one of the nation's toughest schedules — is 13 spots from entering his NCAA tournament projection.
"I don't know," Barnes said when asked about his team's postseason status. "All I know is that these guys have played one of the toughest schedules in the country. It's separation month. You can talk about bubble teams, you can talk about NCAA teams — right now people can go ahead and pencil in teams.
"There's a few, but there aren't a lot, because I've seen teams that were really good, that you think are there, go down the stretch and get going the other way. There's just a lot of basketball left to play, and there's probably 150 teams or so that are in a position to make a push to get themselves into postseason play. You can't get caught up in that. This week coming up, we've got two tough road games. It's a big week for us. We're going to have to make sure we get our rest and do what we have to do. All we need to think about right now is to continuing to get better."
Results have to accompany the improvement, too.
"You have to keep winning," Williams said.
"I feel like this team has a really big shot to make it to the tournament," he added, "and I feel like we've got to keep playing how we are and keep playing hard and get better every night. As long as we keep it going, I think we'll be fine. We won't have to worry about it from there."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.