Is NCAA men’s basketball tournament talk in Tennessee realistic at this stage of the season?
Time will tell for the young Vols, who have gotten leadership and elevated play from senior Robert Hubbs lll, while freshman Grant Williams continues to emerge as one of the SEC’s most promising young superstars.
Tennessee is the best nine-loss team in the country, and by a pretty wide margin over one of the nation’s most-respected programs, according to one of the most highly-regard rating systems used in college basketball.
The Vols, at 11-9, were ranked No. 42 in the nation according to the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings released Thursday morning.
The next best nine-loss team? Number-51 ranked Michigan State (12-9) — makers of 19 consecutive NCAA men’s basketball tournaments under College Basketball Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo.
The Vols and the Spartans share two common opponents, Tennessee Tech and Kentucky.
Michigan State beat Tennessee Tech 71-63 and lost to Kentucky in New York, 69-48, while Tennessee beat Tennessee Tech 74-68 and topped the No. 4-ranked Wildcats on Tuesday, 82-80.
Vols coach Rick Barnes, like Izzo, chose to play a difficult schedule to get his young team better prepared for the season.
“I think the schedule we played finally showed up and helped us break through and get a win against an outstanding team,” Barnes said. “We’ve been in a lot of good (games) with teams that we just couldn’t break through, and for them to get this one done tonight, I just appreciate them.”
Tennessee has a crucial showdown with Kansas State, a 15-5 Big 12 team, at 2 p.m Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena (TV: ESPN2). Those Wildcats are ranked No. 27 by Pomeroy, so a win would provide the Vols a much-needed lift.
The Vols’ schedule currently ranks as the No. .2 most-difficult in the nation, but that figures to change as Tennessee gets into the meat of its SEC schedule.
It’s worth nothing that Georgia Tech’s recent spike has helped the Vols’ cause.
The Yellowjackets are 8-4 since falling in Knoxville, 81-58, back on Dec. 3. Since then, Coach Josh Pastner has led Georgia Tech to notable wins over North Carolina (75-63), North Carolina State (86-76) and on Wednesday, Florida State (78-56).
Where SEC teams and select Tennessee opponents are ranked, according to Pomeroy:
8. North Carolina
26. Kansas State
28. South Carolina
59. East Tennessee
62. Texas A&M
77. Georgia Tech
83. Mississippi State
98. Ole Miss