Tennessee Basketball: Salvage and finish

Tennessee Volunteers

Cuonzo Martin’s Vols are so close, yet still so far away from clinching their first NCAA tourney birth under the third-year head coach (Photo credit: flickr.com)

The formula was simple for Tennessee basketball this season. Pick up where they left off at the end of the regular season a year ago, and they would find great success in 2014.

However, on week one they left 2013 in the past.

A year ago the Vols won eight of their last nine games before heading into the SEC tournament. This year, with only five games remaining they’ve lost three of their last five, leaving them at 16-10, just one loss off their regular season total in 2013.

In their latest Bracketology release, ESPN still has the Vols as one of the “last four in,” this year’s tournament as of right now. There’s two glaring reasons why, despite their shortcomings, Tennessee remains in solid consideration for a tournament slot.

The Vols have the No. 12 toughest schedule among anyone in the nation. They’ve faced four top 25 opponents, as well as six RPI top 50 opponents.  While they only have two victories over RPI top 50 opponents (Xavier and Virginia), Tennessee’s 87-52 victory over Virginia has proven to be a life saver for the Vols late in the season.

Since then the 22-5 Cavaliers have gone on to win 13 of their last 14 games, with their only loss coming on the road to now No. 5 Duke by four points. Tennessee is also the only team to score 80-plus points against the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation.

However, despite all that the Vols are faced with an up-road-battle to make the tournament for the first time under Cuonzo Martin. Even though they are listed as “in” for now, they still have five games, four of which are against opponents outside the RPI top 50 and could really kill their chances instantly with a loss.

The Vols will also face the battle of winning on the road, something they haven’t done well all season with a daunting 2-6 record, for three of their final five games, starting Saturday at 3 p.m. on ESPNU against Texas A&M. The Aggies already stole victory from the Vols in Knoxville, Tenn. after battling back from 14-point halftime deficit.

Tennessee is 1-3 vs. the final five teams on their schedule, they’ve yet to play Mississippi State. They will have to rectify that, and find a way to salvage a broken season if they are to punch their ticket to the dance in 2014.