Tennessee won the three-way tiebreaker at 10-6 in conference to earn the 2-seed in the 2012 SEC tournament. Under normal circumstances, that set of facts would have a team not wondering if it's in March Madness but rather which seed it is going to get.
Not so with UT this year. The Vols are 18-13 overall, and they sat at 11-12 after a loss to Kentucky on January 31. Since the calendar turned to February, the team is 8-1 however. That run was in part fueled by freshman Jarnell Stokes, who only joined the team in the middle of January. The overall resume includes two good wins over Florida and another over Vanderbilt, plus a decent non-conference win over UConn. A case can be made for including the team as an at large in the NCAA Tournament, as Rocky Top Talk has made. It would already be in, really, if it wasn't for a disastrous post-Thanksgiving four-game losing streak that included stumbles against Oakland, Austin Peay, and College of Charleston.
So while the Vols could make it in the field, will they? The expanded tournament field that debuted last year provides four more at large spots than we're used to yet, and so far the mid-major tournaments have been quite orderly. Tournament locks Murray State (OVC) and Creighton (MVC) won their leagues' automatic bids, and the WCC final is a battle of tourney locks with Saint Mary's and Gonzaga. Potential at-larges are still alive elsewhere, such as Harvard in the Ivy League race and VCU and Drexel in the CAA tournament. The only bad news was long shot at-large candidates Iona losing in the MAAC tournament and Middle Tennessee losing in the Sun Belt.
Looking at the most recent NCAA bracket 2012 projections around the web, Tennessee has a real shot thanks to that good fortune. ESPN and Yahoo! have UT as the first team out of the bracket. SBNation and the Bracket Matrix have the Vols in the "next four out" category, while CBS has them merely outside the first four out (no next four out is given). They're in the hunt, but they have work to do and need some help.
As I discussed yesterday, Tennessee will probably face Vanderbilt if it wins its first game against the Auburn/Ole Miss winner. It would work out best for the team if that contest was against the better Rebel team. Winning that first game is an absolute must, and taking the second to make the final probably is too. Beating Kentucky (let's be real and drop the hypotheticals, it'll be Kentucky) in the final would of course take away all doubt and secure the team the SEC auto bid. It's worth remembering that Tennessee came the closest in league play to defeating the Wildcats.
It's still a long shot for Tennessee to get an at large bid, but the fact that it can even be discussed as possible is pretty remarkable. Even getting to the tournament final and seeing more favorites win in the mid-major ranks isn't a guarantee, as each selection committee is its own beast. Will the team be punished for its bad losses, which include a loss to Georgia on top of the bad non-conference ones, or will the committee consider the team with Stokes different than the one without him? There's no way to know.
This kind of uncertainty is part of what makes March so fun.