Cuonzo Martin on the SEC and NCAA tournaments
NEW ORLEANS — If you're a Tennessee fan hoping the Vols make it into the NCAA men's basketball tournament, you'll want to pull for Memphis in the Conference USA tournament.
Welcome to March Madness and a vantage point from within the Big Orange Bubble, a mythical place where bitter rivals like the Tigers can become the Vols' best friends.
Tennessee (18-13, 10-6 SEC) is taking the approach it controls its own destiny heading into the SEC tournament. As the No. 2 seed, UT opens play on Friday (TV: WVLT, 7:30 p.m.) against the winner of Thursday's game (TV: MyVLT, 7:30 p.m.) between No. 7-seed Ole Miss (18-12, 8-8) and No. 10-seed Auburn (15-15, 5-11).
"We can't worry about the bubble, or other teams or what-ifs,'' Tennessee senior Cameron Tatum said Tuesday. "We're going with the mindset to win the SEC tournament.''
That's the only way the Vols can assure themselves of an NCAA tournament bid.
Otherwise, UT has to hope for an at-large bid, and that's where things get dicey.
Three keys to the Vols landing an at-large bid:
1. Hope strong mid-major teams that won their conference regular season also win their league tournament.
Of the 68 teams in the field, 31 are there via their conference's automatic bid. Thirty leagues, including the SEC, give their automatic bid to their tournament champion. The Ivy League gives its bid to the regular-season champ.
In some cases, a mid-major conference's regular-season champion can be good to get an at-large bid if it doesn't win its league tournament.
Memphis is an example, and the Tigers winning is doubly sweet for the Vols because they played them twice, and Memphis' success has a positive effect on UT's RPI (Ratings Percentage Index). If Memphis doesn't win Conference USA, the team that does gets the automatic bid, thus a potential at-large bid could be off the table.
Other strong mid-majors UT will root for to win their league tournaments are: Long Beach State (Big West), Weber State (Big Sky), Akron (Mid-American Conference), Nevada (Western Athletic Conference) and UNLV (Mountain West).
2. Win the beauty pageant among other major conference hopefuls.
Once the automatic bids are doled out, the NCAA selection committee chooses 37 at-large teams.
The RPI is the most standard measurement used to pick at-large teams and seed the tournament. The RPI is a computer ranking taking into account a team's winning percentage, its opponents' winning percentage, and its opponents' opponents winning percentage. Extra value is added for road wins.
Tennessee's current RPI is 75, which in itself would not bode well.
But the committee considers other factors, such as: a team's record vs. RPI top 50, RPI top 100, quality road wins, bad losses and roster changes/health.
UT is 4-7 against top 50 RPI teams and 7-9 against the top 100. That's not bad, but the Vols also have four losses to teams outside the top 100 ranked teams in the RPI: at Georgia (112 RPI), at the College of Charleston (123 RPI), at Oakland (145 RPI), and most damning, at home to Austin Peay (192 RPI).
UT hopes the selection committee weighs heavily that only one of those losses (Georgia) occurred after the addition of freshman starter Jarnell Stokes. The Vols are 10-5 since Stokes' mid-term arrival.
UT also hopes other major-conference bubble teams stumble in league tournaments, such as: Xavier and St. Joseph's (Atlantic 10), Texas (Big 12), Northwestern and Illinois (Big Ten), Oregon and Arizona (Pac-12) North Carolina State and Miami, Fla. (Atlantic Coast Conference), and Seton Hall, South Florida and West Virginia (Big East).
3. Win their side of the SEC tournament bracket.
The best-case scenario for UT begins with Ole Miss beating Auburn.
The Vols need as many wins possible to enhance their resume — the win over Division II Chaminade doesn't count in the eyes of the NCAA tournament nor NIT — but UT also needs an RPI boost.
The Vols would benefit more by beating the Rebels (58 RPI) than Auburn (141 RPI).
Also, Mississippi State (65 RPI) has been projected in the field since bubble talk first surfaced, and Ole Miss is still under consideration. UT is in control of finishing ahead of both teams in New Orleans, further enhancing its image and legitimacy as the SEC's No. 2 team.
Conclusion: ESPN's Joe Lunardi said its "possible" UT gets into the NCAA tournament with one win at the SEC tournament, and "probable" the Vols get a bid with two wins. As of Tuesday night, Lunardi had UT listed second in the "First Four Out" category, which is why the Vols need at least one and probably two victories to make what would be the program's seventh consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and maintain the longest active streak in the SEC.
The worst-case post-season scenario seems to be a bid to the NIT. Former Vols coach Don DeVoe, an NIT committee member, said he believes UT is in "good shape" on that front. The NIT selects its 32-team field using the same criteria as the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32