Energized by his team’s clutch win over Missouri, Cuonzo Martin addressed the inevitable NCAA tournament question Saturday by saying, “The work is done.’’
Well, not quite. Not for Tennessee and not for several of the Vols’ SEC brethren. Pack the hard hats for Nashville.
All of which makes for a most intriguing SEC tournament that tips off Wednesday night, bigger, if not better, than ever.
If saving time were the priority, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Ole Miss would skip Nashville and report straight to Dayton, Ohio, for an SEC-centric, first-round NCAA tournament doubleheader.
The winners stick around. The losers force a smile and pledge to win the NIT.
But that would strip the SEC’s postseason showcase (aka cash cow) of its most compelling plot line.
Usually, by the league tournament, virtually all the hay is in the barn. The most successful teams are playing for NCAA seeding only. Most everyone else is playing out the string.
There’s probably a team on the bubble. Maybe two.
This year, there is a full house, each with fingers crossed:
Kentucky, the defending national champion hoping for the opportunity to mount a defense.
Tennessee, streaking to eight wins in its final nine regular-season games.
Ole Miss, hoping to end the SEC’s longest NCAA tourney drought — since 2001-02.
Alabama, grateful to be in this conversation thanks to Travis Releford’s 50-foot buzzer-beater Saturday.
Everyone agrees Florida and Missouri are locks. Why Mizzou? Strength of schedule. It’s one of the most valued credentials.
From there, the respective bracketologists cannot reach a consensus.
Joe Lunardi of ESPN has Kentucky among the “last four in.’’ The Vols were bumped to “first four out” by Virginia’s win over Maryland on Sunday.
Lunardi also has Ole Miss among the “first four out” and Alabama in the “next four out.’’
Jerry Palm’s CBSsports.com bracket still includes the Vols and Kentucky, both as 12 seeds starting in opening round play-in games in Dayton.
Sports Illustrated’s bracket has Kentucky as “last four in,” with Tennessee, Ole Miss and Alabama swapping elbows in the “first four out.’’
USA Today includes both the Vols and Kentucky as “last four in,’’ with Ole Miss “first four out” and Alabama “next four out.’’
The Vols play Thursday against the winner of Wednesday’s match between Mississippi State and South Carolina.
Either opponent will dilute UT’s strength-of-schedule component, which is second only to Florida among SEC teams and significantly better than most bubble teams nationally.
Martin deserves credit for taking on a demanding non-conference schedule: the Puerto Rico trip; road games at Georgetown and Virginia; home games with Wichita State, Xavier and Memphis.
“We came up short (on some), but I felt like it’s something we had to do,’’ Martin said Monday.
What UT has to do now is win Thursday and then beat Alabama on Friday. The Tide, like Kentucky and Ole Miss, is idle Thursday.
So Friday shapes up as delicious do-or-die day for the bubble brothers. Depending on what happens in tournaments elsewhere, another win on Saturday might even be required.
For once, the SEC might be the most interesting tournament in the country.
There’s so much work yet to be done.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.