Tennessee can finish as high as second in the SEC standings or fail to make the NIT, depending on how the Vols finish the season.
UT first-year coach Cuonzo Martin said Monday that given how the season started, he's OK with the circumstances.
"We're in a good place right now as a team because we continue to get better, and that's a good sign,'' said Martin, who inherited a team with just one returning starter. "We didn't have the luxury with a new coach of getting out of the gates with some confidence, getting your head up. We had to have some tough losses, and eventually we started to learn from it.''
The Vols (16-13, 8-6 SEC) enter into their next game at LSU (17-11, 7-7) on Wednesday (TV: CSS, 9 p.m.) competing for a first-round bye in the SEC tournament in New Orleans starting March 8.
UT, picked to finish 11th at SEC Media Day in October, closes the regular season at home on Saturday (TV: ESPN, 4 p.m.) against Vanderbilt (20-9, 9-5).
Tennessee is tied with Alabama (19-9, 8-6) for fourth place in the SEC; the top four teams receive a bye at the SEC tournament.
For the Vols to finish second in the SEC, it would take UT winning its final two games and Florida (22-7, 10-4) losing at Vanderbilt on Tuesday and losing at home to Kentucky (28-1, 14-0) on Saturday.
In that scenario, the Vols would own the head-to-head tiebreakers with both the Gators and Commodores.
Martin's sense of urgency, however, is on the basketball court, not with
the SEC tiebreaker rules and the multiple scenarios.
"We are fighting for our lives,'' Martin said. "You have to get better every day. There's plenty of work to do. Our guys are hungry right now.
"We're fighting. We don't have any luxury or margin for any error to be happy or be successful or think we've done something special. But we have every right just like everyone else to win ball games.''
Tournament Talk: The Vols, despite the possibilities, have yet to surface on anyone's NCAA at-large list of "bubble watch" teams.
While UT's RPI rank jumped from No. 111 to No. 92 in the past week, according to NCAAsports.com, there are still eight SEC teams with a better RPI rank than UT.
LSU is at No. 68 and Vanderbilt is No. 23; if the Vols beat both teams they would make a healthy jump in the RPI ranks.
Most believe it's a long shot for UT to make the NCAA tournament for a seventh consecutive season with anything less than the league's automatic bid, which is gained by winning the SEC tournament.
But it's worth noting that should the Vols win the next two games, a bit of history would be on their side. Since 1992, only three SEC teams have finished 10-6 or better in league play and not received at-large bids, according to the league office.
Alabama was 12-4 in league play last season and didn't receive a bid, largely because the Tide's RPI ranked 80th. South Carolina and Auburn, both 10-6 in 2009, were also shunned by the NCAA tournament selection committee. The Gamecocks' RPI was 57, and Auburn's was 64, according to RealTimeRpi.com.
Ticket Talk: Less than 500 tickets remain for UT's regular-season home finale against Vanderbilt Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena, and less than 100 of those feature the "Four-point play" package where fans can buy four tickets for $40 and receive vouchers for four beverages and four hot dogs.
Having at least 20,000 in paid attendance at Saturday's game will secure UT's standing in the top five nationally in home attendance for a seventh consecutive season. Schools' attendance figures are based on paid attendance.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32