Moral of story: Teams that are peaking in February and March deserve consideration over teams that are unraveling in February and March.
That should bode well for the 2012 Vols, who boast an 8-1 record in their last nine games. But it doesn't. The NCAA Selection Committee's new catch phrase is "body of work," which means how you start a season is just as important as how you finish it. And, as Big Orange fans are acutely aware, Tennessee started the 2011-12 season poorly. Losses to mid-majors Oakland, Austin Peay and College of Charleston caused the Vols to finish January with a 10-12 record. As a result, their late-season surge may be a case of too little, too late.
Head man Cuonzo Martin begs to differ. Asked point-blank if his team deserves a bid, he replied: "Yes. Is there work to be done? I don't know. I'm not on the committee. We've got to continue to win ball games. But if you're talking about at-large bids and is this an NCAA Tournament team ... yes. There's no doubt in my mind."
Tennessee stands just 18-13 overall but the Vols went 7-1 in SEC home games and 3-5 in SEC road games en route a 10-6 league record that earned a No. 2 seeding for the conference tournament. Martin thinks that should count for something.
"We won three road games in the league," he said. "We protected our home court, only lost one home game in the league. It's all about the body of work to be an NCAA Tournament team.... I think we've done what we need to do."
Junior forward Jeronne Maymon agrees that the Vols have done enough to warrant an invitation to The Dance.
"Most definitely," he said.
"I think we are," he said. "I think we've got a great coaching staff and great kids that are willing to come in every day and get better. I think we're moving in the right direction."
The folks who project NCAA brackets for a living tend to disagree. Most believe Tennessee still has some work to do to be worthy of a bid. Simply put, Maymon has no interest in their opinions.
"I don't watch none of that because it fills your head with the wrong thing," he said. "With people saying we're not in, you start thinking you're not playing for nothing. You just go out there and compete, play like every game is your last."
One key to an NCAA bid is a strong RPI. Tennessee's moved from 92 to 75 following Saturday's defeat of Vanderbilt. The Vols probably need to get down around 60 to have a realistic shot at swaying the selection committee. That doesn't guarantee a bid, however, as Martin learned last year as head man at Missouri State. His team won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title with a 15-3 league record but lost in the MVC Tournament finals and was snubbed by the NCAA Selection Committee, despite a 26-8 overall record and a respectable RPI.
"We finished 38th, 39th, 40th ... somewhere around there," Martin recalled. "And to finish 15-3 in the Missouri Valley and win it outright — that was tough. But that's part of it. It's just one of the (drawbacks) of being at that (mid-major) level."
In years past a team's record over its final 10 to 12 games carried a lot of weight with the NCAA Selection Committee. That is no longer the case, which is why Tennessee's 8-1 record since Feb. 1 may be a moot point.
"With the NCAA, you don't have a true gauge or criteria of getting to an NCAA tournament because in one year it can change on you," Martin said. "Hopefully, when it's your time, the criteria are what you need."
If nothing else, Tennessee's recent rally has elevated it onto the NCAA "bubble," meaning the Vols are at least in the conversation for a bid to The Dance.
"It feels really good," sophomore point guard Trae Golden said. "It feels good because of where we came from. We're not the same team that lost games at the beginning of the season. We've made a considerable growth in a small period of time."
Asked if he thought in December the Vols would be this good in March, Golden shook his head.
"No, I didn't," he said. "I didn't think it would happen this quick. That's a testament to our hard work."
Senior wing Cameron Tatum believes the Vols' 8-1 record over the past five weeks proves they are easily one of the NCAA's 68 best teams.
"I think we're playing pretty well," he said. "There are still some things we need to work on and some more work to do. We'll get back at it and get ready to play in the SEC Tournament."
One reason for the turnaround, he believes, is that the Vols are having fun.
"You've got to enjoy playing the game while you're out there," he said, "and I think we're starting to do that."
Golden says the Vols of March bear little resemblance to the Vols of November, December and January. He believes they will be a tough test for any opponent they face from this point forward.
"We're hungrier, we've got a chip on our shoulder and we're defending at a high level," he said. "I think that's really working for us.
"I feel like we're just as good as anybody in the country right now. If we keep working hard the sky's the limit for us."