Tennessee Two Stepping into Tournament Consideration?

4 Mar

Is Greg Anthony clairvoyant? Did he know something the rest of us were missing?  During the media’s mock selection committee in Indianapolis two weeks ago he brought upTennessee for consideration as an at-large candidate was lamented by some in the room at the time.

Fast forward to today and suddenly the Volunteers are the #2 seed in the SEC tournament, which begins on Thursday.  Cuonzo Martin’s squad finished the regular season at 18-13 and 10-6 in the SEC.  Tennessee will face the winner of the Auburn/Mississippi game in the quarterfinals on Friday.  How did they turn their season around?

One factor could’ve come before their game on January 14th with then #2 Kentucky.  Jarnell Stokes a highly touted 6’8 forward from Memphis was declared eligible to play immediately by the NCAA.  The freshman big man graduated early from high school and celebrated his 18th birthday a week prior to taking the floor against Kentucky.

Stokes came in and made an immediate impact.  He averaged nearly 25 minutes a game scoring 9.1 points and grabbing 7.5 rebounds.  Before Stokes arrival Tennessee was wallowing at 8-8, with the youngster on board the Volunteers went 10-5, including a sweep of Florida and wins over Connecticut and Vanderbilt.

If people are surprised at the turn around, the head coach isn’t one of them, “I thought we were a pretty good team in SEC play. You have to take your lumps.” Said Coach Martin after the Vols win over Vanderbilt.  But is winning 8 of their last 9, including 3 of 4 on the road enough to get them over the hump? Perhaps not, but it should at least get them into the conversation.

Let’s compare Tennessee to three teams who find themselves squarely on the bubble; West Virginia, Washington and Virginia Commonwealth to see how they stack up.

West Virginia: Finished 19-12, 9-9 in the Big East with the #8 seed in the Big East Tournament.  The Mountaineers finished 4-7 vs. the RPI top 50 which is the same record as Tennessee. West Virginia’s strength of schedule is 13, while Tennessee’s is 32.  West Virginia also has the edge in RPI with a rank of 49, compared to Tennessee’s 75.

Washington: Finished at 21-9, 14-4 in the PAC-12 and will have a top 2 seed in the conference tournament. The Huskies have 1, yes 1 win in seven tries over an RPI top 50 team, a New Year’s Eve home win over Oregon. If it wasn’t for a season sweep of Arizona, the win over Oregon would be the Huskies’ lone top 100 win.  Tennessee has seven.  Washington played the 81st toughest schedule in the country, compared to the Volunteers 32nd.

Virginia Commonwealth: Finished the regular season at 25-6 and 15-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association, good enough for the 2nd seed in the conference tournament.  The Rams have a better RPI at 59 but a far worse strength of schedule (183).  They went 4-4 against the top 100 while Tennessee went 7-9, with twice as many opportunities afforded them.

While it’s clear that Tennessee portfolio doesn’t match up with some other bubble teams, the fact that the possibility is even being discussed is quite remarkable.   If the Volunteers go on a run in the SEC tournament and happen to meet Kentucky in the final, things will have come full circle for Jarnell Stokes in his introduction to college basketball.

If Tennessee happens to hear their name called one week from today, remember where we heard it first:Greg Anthony.

Team Record RPI SOS Vs. RPI 50 Vs RPI 51-100
Tennessee 18-13,10-6 75 32 4-7 3-2
West Virginia 19-12,9-9 49 13 4-7 5-3
Washington 21-9,14-4 54 81 1-6 2-2
Virginia Commonwealth 25-6,15-3 59 183 1-1 3-3

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