Regular season SEC record: 11-7
Potential opening opponents: Arkansas (W 81-74), Auburn (W 78-67; W 82-54), and South Carolina (W 72-53)
I swear, this conversation would be far different if you change one reality. If Tennessee had swept Texas A&M instead of the Aggies having swept the Vols, this piece would sound very different.
Making that switch wouldn't wipe away all of UT's iffy losses; Big Orange still lost to Vandy, and it fell to NC State and UTEP in the non-conference. Still though, it would erase the Vols' two worst losses by the KenPom system's reckoning, they'd be the 2-seed in this tournament, and they'd be comfortably in the Field of 68 instead of flirting with the cut line. All it would take is six measly points to erase the one-point loss to A&M in January and the three-point overtime loss a couple of weeks ago. That's it and that's all.
But Tennessee did get swept by TAMU, a decent symbol for a frustratingly uneven year. You could easily argue that UT has the best top pair of players in the conference with Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes. Their 35-point demolition of Virginia is far and away the SEC's best win in-conference or out. Rocky Top Talk, pile on, won't you?
As of Saturday night the Vols are a staggering 12th in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's ratings. In the last two weeks the Vols haven't just gotten Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes at their best, and haven't just gotten hot shooting from Barton and contributions from the bench. If you believe Cuonzo Martin, it's Tennessee's defense that has really helped this team turn the corner, and the numbers back him up.
Jabari Brown was the SEC's leading scorer. Josh Richardson held him to 1 for 10 today, and the Tigers shot 31.9% from the floor. Auburn's Chris Denson met the same fate, 1 of 10 on Wednesday night, and those Tigers shot 37.7%. Last Saturday Vanderbilt shot 22.4%, the best performance of the season from the Vol defense. ...
The Vols now have seven wins against the RPI Top 100, six of them by at least 15 points. Tennessee is playing with real confidence on both ends of the floor and absolutely running away from people.
Tennessee is rolling into Atlanta on an even hotter streak than Florida is. The potential that has appeared and disappeared all season long finally seems to be present consistently. If UT can keep things rolling they way it has in the past two weeks, we could easily see it grab its first SEC Tournament championship since 1979.
And yet, this is still the team that got swept by Texas A&M. Immediately before those two losses, Tennessee beat LSU by 18 and Georgia by 19, respectively. In fact, that first blown game agains the Aggies came right after four big wins even more dominant than the past four heading into this week. Four, as it just so happens, is UT's longest winning streak on the season.
So maybe we should forget about asking Tennessee if it can keep its momentum rolling. Perhaps it would be better to ask if the team can put the recent past away and start fresh. Forget it all; they just need a three-game winning streak to cut down the nets in Atlanta. That's totally doable, right? Right?
Perhaps. The team is unblemished against its three potential opening opponents, but it hasn't fared so well against its likely second opponent, Florida. It hung in there for a while before losing by nine at home, but the Gators wiped the floor with the Vols in a 26-point drubbing in Gainesville. The closer loss happened later though, and if you pull back the camera to a wider angle, you see that UT has played very well since February 8. Six of the team's seven wins since then have been by 19 or more, and all three losses were by single digits. Progress!
Except that, one of those three losses was the second one to Texas A&M. Tennessee just hasn't been able to shake lapses like that all season. Another could hit at any time, and, well, that's why the Vols don't have a better than 20% chance of winning the SEC Tournament.
See what I mean? If Tennessee had just swept the Aggies instead of the other way around, this would all sound so different.