NEW ORLEANS – Tennessee fans are no stranger to NCAA men's basketball tournament talk, having seen the Vols make the Big Dance the past six seasons.
But this season there's a new twist; there's still work to be done at the SEC tournament for UT to extend the SEC's longest active streak of NCAA tournament appearances to seven.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi is among the experts who believe Tennessee will do just that and wind up in the field of 68.
“I really like their chances, and I like their draw in the SEC tournament,'' Lunardi said Wednesday, “and ultimately, I think the Vols are going to make it.''
The operative word being “ultimately,'' for Lunardi who also said in a teleconference that “to feel safe” UT needs to win two games at the SEC tournament.
The No. 2-seeded Vols (18-13) open play Friday (TV: WVLT, 7:30 p.m.) against the winner of Thursday's game between No. 7-seed Ole Miss (18-12) and No. 10-seed Auburn (15-15).
A win Friday is an absolute must for UT to even stay in the discussion of NCAA tournament bubble teams according to Lunardi, who authors and updates the popular “Bracketology” feature on ESPN.com and is regarded by many as the top authority on NCAA tournament field projections.
The Vols have a suspect RPI rank of 75 and four losses to teams outside of the top 100 in the RPI rankings.
“Their RPI's not good, and it can't really get good with one game (at the SEC tournament),'' Lunardi said. “Given that, if I'm pulling for Tennessee, I'd like to see them get to that semifinal game, I don't care who the (quarterfinal game) is against, and give yourself a chance there for another marquee win that would pretty much end the conversation and put you in the field.''
Lunardi said the Vols' finishing kick is their overriding factor.
“I really think in Tennessee's case you've got a 'what have you done for me lately,' '' Lunardi said, “and they've won eight of nine, including road games in the league, including at Florida.''
Lunardi suggested the mid-term addition of All-SEC Freshman center Jarnell Stokes plays a role in how the NCAA tournament selection committee views the losses to teams outside of the top 100 that occurred prior to Stokes' arrival.
Those UT losses, at Oakland, at College of Charleston and at home against Austin Peay, aren't “weighted as heavily,'' he said.
The Vols other top-100 loss, at Georgia, apparently won't be viewed as that big of a negative, either.
Lunardi, when speaking about Florida, said the Gators' road loss at Georgia, said: “It's a road game, against a not terrible team (Georgia). It's not like they lost to Georgia Southern on the road.''
While Lunardi told the News Sentinel in an e-mail on Sunday that it's possible for Tennessee to get one of the 37 at-large bids with just one win in the SEC tournament, he said on Wednesday that scenario might not prove likely.
“Now, you're talking about needing help,'' he said.
Lunardi shared an interesting note about a newer area of emphasis for the NCAA tournament selection committee that bodes well for the Vols.
“The committee has been looking more and more at who you play twice, and who you play home and away (in conference action),'' Lunardi said.
The Vols have played the SEC's other top three teams twice this season – Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt – and UT's SEC road games included three of the top four seeded teams from what was formerly the SEC West Division, Alabama, Mississippi State and LSU.
Some SEC alarmists have pointed to Alabama not making the NCAA tournament last season despite a 12-4 conference mark, but Lunardi said the Tide had another issue that prevented it from making the field.
“I know why they missed,'' he said, “it was because of their non-conference schedule number.''
Alabama finished with an RPI of 80 largely because of a schedule that ranked 114th.
UT, which according to statsheet.com has seen its RPI get bumped up to No. 74 after Tuesday's action, currently has a schedule strength ranked 32nd.