After the dust from what was a roller coaster of a regular season for Tennessee settled, the Vols had fallen out of the double bye standing for the conference tournament in Nashville. While this is not the end of the world considering Tennessee would still make the tournament even if they lost their first game in Nashville this week, it must be disappointing for Rick Barnes and his squad that have talked about the standards that they hold themselves to and the expectations they had for this season within their own building.
However disappointing it may be, they do not have time to let it fester. Anyone can beat anyone in March and you have to stay focused. It’s do-or-die times in College Basketball which makes for one of the best times of the year in sports.
— Southeastern Conference (@SEC) March 5, 2023
Feels good to see the first bracket of the year doesn’t it? So, with the tournament starting up this week let’s break down Tennessee’s potential path to repeating as the tournament champs.
The Vols have a combined 6-2 record against their side of the bracket with the two losses coming from Missouri, who Tennessee would see in their second game with a win, on a buzzer-beater and Florida on the road. Granted, the wins all came with Zakai Zeigler in the lineup, but some of those same wins came without Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Philips. Tennessee, even without Zeigler, has the talent on the roster to make some noise, but it’s going to come down to minimizing, or preferably for the Vols eliminating, the extended offensive lapses this team suffers from.
If Tennessee can come up with an at least somewhat effective band-aid for the hole left by Zeigler this bracket sets up well for them to at least get to the semis and then see what happens from there. Tennessee beat their two potential first opponents by a combined 233-146 over the course of three games. Despite the time of year, I would expect Tennessee to get the win regardless of the matchup between Ole Miss or South Carolina. The next round is where it gets interesting. Missouri would be waiting on the Vols. Tennessee lost to the Tigers on a buzzer-beating deep three runner, and Zeigler didn’t have a particularly good game so you could talk yourself into a win here as well, but Missouri is hot, winning their last four games to pass Tennessee for the four seed and they’re a tough matchup with Kobe Brown especially with Tennessee missing their star point guard.
If Tennessee was able to get past the Tigers, they would be playing Alabama, who they beat already this season, but that would be an incredibly hard thing to accomplish twice; Mississippi State who is my sleeper along with Vanderbilt, as they have only improved as the season has gone along; or Florida who beat the Vols earlier this season. Any of these outcomes would be a tough matchup for Tennessee but none of them are one that the Vols are incapable of winning.
A massive win in the semis would send Tennessee to the championship game to defend its title against what I believe is a much tougher side of the bracket overall. Any one of the teams with byes could make it to the championship game and I would not be surprised.
The Vols have their work cut out for them. There are clear challenges and hurdles that Tennessee will have however long they can stick around in Nashville to figure out and move past before the big dance. If they can’t, they may not be dancing for long.
Tennessee plays Thursday, March 9 at 2pm CT. They will play the winner of game #1 (South Carolina vs Ole Miss). Watch it on the SEC Network.
Full schedule here.