NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin drummed his fingers impatiently when lobbed the familiar question about the Volunteers’ NCAA men’s basketball tournament prospects.
After a victory over Missouri on Saturday, Martin, in his second season leading UT, planted a flag in declaring he thought the program was squarely off the bubble.
Yet the fluid nature of metrics and the discussions taking place in a conference room among selection committee members is always evolving.
So, does Martin regret the declaration?
“I wasn’t premature,” Martin said Wednesday at the SEC tournament. “I said what I meant, for our guys to be successful we need to win ballgames. You don’t come to a venue like this to lose a game.”
On Wednesday, the Vols rested squarely on the cut line. Their RPI is No. 56, according to CBS analyst Jerry Palm, while their strength of schedule is solid at No. 41 nationally.
Yet ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Volunteers resting at No. 69 on the S-Curve, which is a preference order of potential at-large teams and automatic qualifiers, and translates to Martin’s squad being the first team left out of the 68-team field.
Projections do little to pique Martin’s interest, though.
“I don’t get consumed with what’s said on TV,” he said. “Not at all.”
If Tennessee does need to apply more spackle to fill in cracks, it’s unlikely its second-round game Thursday against the winner of No. 12 seed South Carolina (14-17) and 13th-seeded Mississippi State (9-21) will help.
Instead, a potential quarterfinal matchup with fourth-seeded Alabama (20-11) could serve as a de facto elimination game for an at-large bid.
“We’re just looking at it one game,” Tennessee guard Trae Golden said. “(Wednesday night), we’ll see who we play (Thursday), and in all honesty, we’re just looking at our game (Thursday). We’re not looking at the NCAA tournament or anything.”
The Crimson Tide, which finished 12-6 in the SEC, is in a far more precarious situation resting at No. 63 in the RPI.
Bama is 1-4 against the RPI top 50 and has bad home losses to Dayton (No. 110), Mercer (No. 136) and Tulane (No. 187) marring their argument for inclusion.
While the Vols might need to win two games, it’s a safe bet Alabama might need a run to the final — a run potentially dispatching Tennessee and unseating top-seeded Florida in the semifinals.
A day removed from guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope being named the SEC Player of the Year, Georgia coach Mark Fox faced the obvious question of whether the sophomore might test the NBA draft.
Caldwell-Pope, who averaged 18.0 points and 6.9 rebounds, scored more than 10 points in every game this season, and is currently projected as a potential late first-round pick.
“He’s been more streaky than scouts would like, but when he gets going, he’s very tough to defend,” ESPN’s Chad Ford wrote on Feb. 27. “Factor in his athletic abilities, and he’s a name to watch over the coming months.”
Fox said, “This is probably the ninth or 10th time through it with an underclassman.” And by now, he has defined his role as narrowing the scope of who should be involved in the decision.
“This is Kentavious’ decision,” Fox said. “It’s not about anybody other than him. It’s not about Georgia. It’s not about his family. It’s about him. He’s got a wonderful family that’s very supportive, but we’ll make sure the process will be that we get the accurate information from the NBA people.”
Missouri point guard Phil Pressey might be the maestro of the Tigers’ offense, but his misses in defining moments late in games gnaw at the junior.
Against Tennessee, Pressey airballed a 3-pointer with 12.6 seconds left that was the final punch swung by Mizzou (22-9) in a 64-62 loss that sent the Tigers tumbling from the No. 3 seed to the No. 6 slot in the conference tournament.
And the pointed assessment of the decision by Missouri coach Frank Haith afterward added to the sting.
“I didn’t want that shot,” Haith said Saturday.
Four days later, Pressey calmly expressed his disappointment of the ending, which joined company with his issues of bailing out Missouri in road losses at LSU, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Kentucky.
All of those were games where a late turnover or a quick 3-pointer might have cost Missouri victories in compiling a 2-8 record away from Mizzou Arena.
“It was very frustrating,” said Pressey, who was an All-SEC pick and leads the conference with 7.1 assists per game. “Whenever you lose a game we know we should have won, we’re always frustrated. The last few possessions or last shot, I could have got a better shot, could have took it to the hole. I didn’t. We lost the game.”
Forward Laurence Bowers, though, noted Pressey’s struggles are the final product of the team’s smaller mistakes over the course of a game: turnovers, poor close-outs, failing to come up with loose balls.
“Just overall getting stops when we need them, getting rebounds when we need them,” Bowers said. “Sometimes we don’t finish the possession out, and I feel that’s something you work on every day in practice. … It’s little things like that kind of add up to big things.”
Haith’s tone was more conciliatory toward Pressey, but didn’t stray from the premise undergirding his remarks in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Pressey is an able scorer, but his skills as a distributor trump putting points on the board.
“When he plays in the mindset, ‘I’m going to make guys around me better,” that’s when we are really good,” Haith said, “and not necessarily force the issue too much in terms of attacking and just taking what the defense gives you.”
By now, Arkansas’ struggles away from The Hill and Bud Walton Arena are well-documented.
The seventh-seeded Razorbacks (19-12) compiled a 1-11 record outside their home state and were routed by an average of roughly 16 points per game.
Now, UA faces No. 10 seed Vanderbilt (14-16) on a supposedly neutral floor at Bridgestone Arena. With a minor exception, though: The Commodores are only a two-mile drive from their campus and Memorial Gymnasium.
Still, Arkansas is treating the setting as shared confines.
“Really, no one is at home,” Arkansas point guard B.J. Young said.
“It’s a great opportunity for our ballclub and team to come out show that we’ve improved from the first game of the season.”
The remedy might just be in Arkansas attuning its energy, particularly early in games, to the appropriate level without 18,000-plus rabid fans caterwauling in the seats.
“When you talk about reversing a trend, in a one-game season, focus on that game, and you take it one at a time,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said.
“Our defense and our energy got to be at a high level.”
Rolling out the ball on a neutral floor might be part of the solution, too.
“I just think the way we play, our kids being aggressive, being in attack mode,” Anderson said of the main factor that aids Arkansas.
“Vanderbilt is a team that wants to slow it down, no question about it. It starts with our defense. Our defense has really, really got to be on point.”
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