Vols fighting for post-season lives

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Florida may be the sunshine state but Tennessee’s outlook is mostly cloudy heading into tonight’s tipoff against the University of Florida Gators. The struggling Vols are in danger of becoming just the third Big Orange squad since 1996-97 to miss post-season play altogether.

Buzz Peterson sandwiched losing seasons in 2001-02 (15-16) and 2004-05 (14-17) around NIT bids in 2002-03 and 2003-04. Except for ’02 and ’05, the Vols have participated in post-season play each of the past 17 seasons. That streak is in serious jeopardy, however.

Thursday’s home-floor setback to Vanderbilt dropped the 2014-15 Vols’ record to 14-13 with eight losses in their past 10 games. They will be hard-pressed to get up for tonight’s game in Gainesville but junior forward Derek Reese says they must. Otherwise, the Gators will romp.

“If we feel sorry for ourselves they’ll bury us,” Reese said. “It’s a business. You’ve got to pick yourself up, stay motivated and keep going.”

The Vols will be prohibitive underdogs Wednesday at LSU (a team that trounced them 73-55 in Knoxville on Feb. 14) and maybe a slight favorite in the regular-season finale against South Carolina on March 7.

Bottom line: A loss tonight in Gainesville probably means Tennessee will carry a 15-15 record at best into the SEC Tournament that begins March 11 in Nashville. A first-round loss there would produce a 15-16 record and no chance of a post-season bid. A second-round loss would produce a 16-16 record and a third-round loss would produce a 17-16 record. Neither of these would ensure an NIT bid. Given the Vols’ well-chronicled history of futility in SEC Tournament play, a run to the title game is not a reasonable option.

Still, head coach Donnie Tyndall has been accentuating the positive.

"I'm a big dreamer,” he said this week. “My goal is to still find a way to go to the NCAA Tournament. At this point in time it looks like we would have to win the SEC Tournament.”

Here’s the problem with that: Tennessee’s talent level is so low that it must play exceptionally well in order to win. When the Vols play average or worse, they lose. This is a team that stands just 2-6 in SEC home games, including 18-point beat-downs at the hands of Alabama (38-56), LSU (55-73) and Kentucky (48-66). For this group to earn an automatic NCAA bid via an SEC Tournament title is basically a pipe dream.

“That is still our goal,” Tyndall said. “If you want to look and say ‘You can't do that,’ then we certainly hope to play in some type of postseason (event). The next goal would be in the NIT because I just think any chance our team gets to play additional games as we move forward into next year – these practices and games – will help a ton.

“We still hope and plan to play in the postseason – with the goal being the NCAA Tournament – but I'm a realist in regards to how hard that is going to be to achieve."

Should Tennessee be snubbed by the NIT it could be offered a spot in a couple of third-tier events – the CollegeInsider.com tournament and the College Basketball Invitational. Whether Tennessee’s administration would approve involvement in these events is debatable.

After noting that he is "all for playing extra games,” Tyndall conceded: “That would be a decision that (athletics director) Dave Hart, (senior associate athletics director) Jon Gilbert and I would have to discuss.”

The coach says competing in anything below the NCAA or NIT would be a non-issue in future seasons. The program is so desperate for experience and exposure at present, however, that he thinks the lesser post-season events merit consideration this year.

“I know after this season, (a third-tier event) would not be something I would ever want to consider,” Tyndall said. “But I think any postseason with this particular team, as youthful and inexperienced as we are, would be an accomplishment. As we move this thing forward, we have one goal and one goal only: To play in the NCAA Tournament."

GAME NOTES: The Gators are 13-15 (6-9 SEC) in their 19th season under head coach Billy Donovan…. Donovan is seeking his 500th career win, joining Bob Knight as the only coaches to accomplish that feat before turning 50 years old…. Junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith missed Florida's last two games while serving an indefinite suspension…. Junior guard and Rutgers transfer Eli Carter is just one point shy of the 1,000-career point plateau…. Each of the 10 players in the Gators' rotation has started at least three games this season…. Tuesday’s loss at Missouri was Florida’s sixth in its last seven games. Thursday’s loss to Vanderbilt was the Vols’ fourth in a row and eighth in the past 10 games…. Tonight’s game tips off at 6 p.m. with TV coverage provided by ESPN2.

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