The Tennessee Volunteers currently aren't going to raise any eyebrows with their 9-8 record but where this team stands in other areas is ahead of what many prognosticators expected.
The Vols were predicted to finish 13th in the Southeastern Conference and are currently are tied for seventh almost a third of the way into league play. The Big Orange currently has an RPI that has some even entertaining the possibility of making a run toward the NCAA Tournament bubble. RealtimeRPI had the Vols with an RPI of 58 on Monday. KenPom.com ranks the Tennessee strength of schedule as the third toughest in the country.
The Vols' eight defeats came at the hands of opponents who own a 113-22 record. Those teams have current RPI rankings of Florida (3), Gonzago (8), UNC (11), Oregon (13), South Carolina (26), Wisconsin (37), Arkansas (40) and UTC (74).
Tennessee players have mentioned needing to win games for the purpose of making the NCAA Tourney. Grant Williams spoke about it after the worst defeat of the season (13 points) at home to South Carolina. Admiral Schofield talked about the Vanderbilt game being the turning the point.
"I would be disappointed in the them (if they didn't talk about it)," Rick Barnes said.
This season hasn't been without bumps in the road. Freshman standout Jordan Bone missed nine games due to injury and Schofield missed four games due to suspension.
Barnes said Monday that the time Bone lost came in a period of the season that young players need to develop areas of weakness.
"I hope a game like that can give confidence going forward," Barnes said of the victory in Nashville.
Bone bucketed four 3-pointers after entering the contest just 1-of-10 from downtown.
"It's hard to sit out nine games and come back thinking you are going to be ready. This game is fast and it isn't high school anymore," Bone said.
Barnes recently said that Schofield "hit rock bottom" during his suspension but on Monday had a much different take on the sophomore.
"The last few weeks (Schofield) has really been engaged, focused and poised," Barnes said. "He isn't afraid to speak up and help coach the team."
The sophomore is emerging as a leader on this team both with words and actions. Schofield is averaging nearly 13 points a game in his last three games and scored a season high in Nashville with 18. He is playing a lot more as well with right at 25 minutes played per game in that stretch.
"One thing I know about this team is I like them a lot," Barnes said. "They are growing and starting to learn what it takes to compete at a high level. We still have a lot of room to continue to grow."
If this team can become more consistent it can continue to prove the preseason SEC predictions wrong and keep the NCAA bubble talk a topic of discussion. The RPI rankings are sure to be on Tennessee's side if it can get the win total to an acceptable level.
Tennessee freshman point guard Jordan Bone