There are must-win games. Then there are can’t-lose games.
Trust that there’s a difference.
When Tennessee steps on the Auburn Arena floor Wednesday night (TV: CSS, 9 p.m.), the Vols will do so as a clear favorite. Auburn is 3-13 in the SEC, 9-20 overall. Tennessee is 9-7, 17-11.
A win by the Vols will barely leave a blip on the ESPN BottomLine. A loss will all but eliminate any NCAA tournament at-large berth hopes, stir a storm in Knoxville and erase the team’s late-season surge.
“We’re in the exact same spot as last year so we know what we need to do,” UT junior guard Jordan McRae said. “We don’t like to label games must-wins, but these next two games, we’ve got to win.”
Or, at least, they can’t lose.
The Vols are looking to reroute from a weekend detour. A 78-68 defeat at Georgia snapped a six-game winning streak. But despite local reactions to the contrary, the loss didn’t derail those NCAA hopes.
Tennessee is still very much in the picture.
That will only remain intact as long as business is tended to Wednesday.
“Just get Ws and keep moving forward,” coach Cuonzo Martin said.
Auburn is languishing in the SEC basement alongside fellow 3-13 bottom feeders South Carolina and Mississippi State. Those Bulldogs, though, offered up a weekend reminder for UT of what can happen when wins are counted before they hatch. They dented the NCAA tournament resume of rival Ole Miss in an out-of-nowhere 73-67 win in Starkville on Saturday.
“We’ll talk about it, but more about trying to beat an Auburn team that’s a hungry team on a senior night, not necessarily what their RPI is,” Martin said. “You lose a game, it doesn’t matter what the RPI is. For us, it’s going to win a basketball game and being locked in from start to finish of a game, because anything can happen in league play.”
The RPI doesn’t matter in Wednesday's game, but it does matter in that big picture. In the NCAA’s official weekly ranking released Monday, UT dropped three spots from 53 to 56. Auburn sits at 228, worst in the SEC.
The Vols enter the final two games of the season jockeying shoulder-to-shoulder with Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU for seeding lines in the SEC tournament. Tennessee could finish as high as fourth place, thus earning a double bye to the conference quarterfinals, or anywhere from fifth to eighth.
The argument exists that UT might be best served not advancing directly to the quarters. A likely win over a lower-seeded team in the second round can at least pad the win total. A one-and-done appearance in the quarterfinals, resembling last season when the second-seeded Vols lost to seventh-seeded Ole Miss, would crumple up the resume.
That is, of course, down the road.
Auburn has lost seven straight, 13 of its last 14 and been held to less than 56 points in its past five outings. The tough times have spoiled coach Tony Barbee’s third year at the helm. The former UTEP coach is 12-36 in SEC games at Auburn and 25-56 overall.
With the heat rising in East Alabama, Barbee said during Monday's SEC teleconference, “Nobody hates losing more than me. I’ve aged 10 years this year because I haven’t slept. I’m trying to figure out ways to get this team back on the winning track. I see the direction that it’s going — and I’m excited about it.”
The Vols are excited for what’s ahead, too.
As long as it’s not a loss.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.