Florida, of course, is already a lock. That leaves Tennessee, Kentucky and Vandy battling for the two remaining bids to The Dance. Obviously, Tennessee's 69-62 defeat of Vanderbilt Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena was crucial. Beating one of the SEC East's other NCAA Tournament contenders is doubly satisfying.
"Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt … those are the teams we're competing with for a bid," UT coach Bruce Pearl concedes. "When you beat one of those three it actually counts twice because it's a win for you and a loss for them."
That's significant because the Vols still have to play Kentucky twice – Tuesday at Lexington and March 1 in Knoxville. Tennessee also must play Florida at Gainesville (Feb. 15) and Vanderbilt at Nashville (March 4). The Vols probably will be underdogs in all of those games except the March 1 home outing with UK.
Pearl is hopeful the NCAA Selection Committee will take all four of the SEC East contenders but the odds are against it. That's why beating the Commodores was a big step toward putting UT in the NCAA Tournament and putting Vandy in the National Invitation Tournament.
Still, the Commodores can't be counted out just yet. Vandy plays five of its remaining nine SEC games at home, where it is very difficult to beat. Moreover, the Commodores' remaining road games are all winnable – at Alabama, at Georgia, at South Carolina and at Ole Miss. If the ‘Dores sweep their five home games and win two of four on the road, they would finish 19-8 overall and 10-6 in SEC play.
"Vanderbilt has been to Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee already," Pearl notes. "They've been to four really tough places in their first seven games, so the schedule favors Vanderbilt down the stretch."
Conversely, Tennessee's remaining schedule is a bit tougher. In addition to games at Lexington, Gainesville and Nashville, the Big Orange must play Georgia in Athens and Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Vols also have tough home tests remaining against Kentucky (15-6) and Arkansas (14-6). If they win their remaining home games and lose their remaining road games they also would finish 19-8 and 10-6.
"We've got to play five out of our last eight on the road." Pearl says. "We've got this win (over Vandy) in perspective. All we did was hold serve."