AP photo by James Crisp / Coach Rick Barnes and the Tennessee Vols have impressed in back-to-back wins against Florida and Kentucky heading into their regular-season finale against Auburn at Thompson-Boling Arena.

What if?

What if the University of Tennessee men's basketball team stretches its streak of improbable late-season victories to three by winning Saturday's noon showdown against Auburn and former UT coach Bruce Pearl?

What if the Volunteers enter next week's Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville having beaten Florida, No. 6 Kentucky and No. 17 Auburn in succession after falling below .500 in league play less than two weeks ago with a loss at Arkansas?

What if that streak of wins grows to six heading into Selection Sunday, which would mean Rick Barnes' Vols have reached their third straight SEC tourney final with a chance to win their first tourney title since 1979?

What then? Would just reaching that game be enough to vault them into the NCAA tournament field? Or would they still need to win their fourth game in four days to earn the SEC's automatic bid to the Big Dance?

We don't know. But isn't that this entire season in a nutshell, whether you're a fan of the Vols, Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State or Kansas?

OK, maybe we know about the top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. They're pretty good. They were also pretty lucky to escape a much less impressive Vols bunch by a 74-68 score within the friendly confines of their historic Allen Fieldhouse in a Big 12/SEC Challenge game on Jan. 25. For proof of how impressive that loss was for the Big Orange, only two of the Jayhawks' 16 home games this season were closer than their win over UT: a 12-point loss to Baylor and a three-point win over 2020 NCAA runner-up Texas Tech.

Still, with the overall record standing at 17-13 and the league mark but 9-8 right now for the Vols, they clearly have much work to do over the next nine days if they're to earn enough respect from the NCAA tourney selection committee to make the field. That almost has to start against Auburn and Pearl, which suddenly have their own problems to worry about after Wednesday's loss to Texas A&M in their home finale, with their first home loss of the season also their fourth loss in their past six games overall.

There's also the backstory that has developed with the tragic tornado outbreak in Tennessee early Tuesday and the Vols' stunning comeback win at Kentucky that night, one that included a 50-25 thumping of the Wildcats in the second half after trailing by 17 points at one point early in the period.

Asked about the tornadoes and the victory after the game, Barnes spoke of a phone call he'd made earlier in the day to a friend in Cookeville, which was devastated by an F-4 tornado that killed 18 of the state's 24 total victims.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to those that lost people in the devastation there," Barnes said. "I talked to a friend of mine in Cookeville today, and I asked him, 'You know, we're going to be coming through there next week for the (SEC) tournament. What can we do?' He said, 'I'll think about it. In the meantime, the best thing you can do is beat the Wildcats.'

"So, again, if that helps anybody, but it's so sad, what happened there. Again, actually, this is a game, but that's a real-life tragedy, and I'm just really sad for those people, and I just know that we've got to keep them in our prayers."

Those prayers need to continue. Every day. But there are moments when it's worth asking, to borrow one of ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes' favorite lines, "Do you want it or need it?" Much of the state of Tennessee needed that Big Orange win on Tuesday, if only to momentarily lift its spirits.

And an extended run of UT basketball success could certainly provide more momentary relief for so much of this state that's been so cruelly impacted by Mother Nature of late. That's one of sport's most important traits: To briefly distract us from the pain of everyday life.

But short of winning the SEC tourney next week in the Music City, can the Vols somehow reach the NCAA tournament?

ESPN "Bracketologist" Joe Lunardi didn't offer much hope Friday. In his latest projection for the 68-team field, he doesn't mention the Vols among his first eight on the outside looking in. But let them win against Auburn, then post at least two wins in the SEC tourney and that could certainly change, especially if the committee does what it says it does, which is to weigh every game with equal importance, whether played in November or March.

Of the noticeably improved play of freshman Josiah-Jordan James of late, including his 16-point, seven-rebound, five-assist night at Kentucky, Barnes said, "He's just, he's got that look."

It may be too late, but all the Vols suddenly have that look when it matters most. If that look remains through the SEC tournament, if the Vols can reach at least 20 wins before their 14th defeat, "What if?" just might give way to "What time is our first NCAA tourney game?"

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.