Now 14-7 overall and 2-4 in Southeastern Conference play, Tennessee may need to win six of its remaining 10 regular-season games. That would get the Vols to 20-11 overall and 8-8 in league play, which should secure a bid to "The Dance" this year. Anything less could be risky.
"Obviously, 20 is a magic number that has existed for a long time, especially with the quality of our non-conference schedule," UT head coach Bruce Pearl said this week. "But it's too early to say what THE number is going to be because there's just too many factors that we don't control."
The NCAA Tournament is all about numbers. Twenty wins is a big number. Going at least 8-8 in conference play is a big number. Then there's the unknown – the number of SEC teams the NCAA Selection Committee is willing to take. Most years five or six league teams get bids. Occasionally, seven teams are invited. Pearl thinks as many as eight of the 12 SEC teams could go this year.
"There's a number but I don't think it's a hard-and-fast number," he said. "Seven is a number you can expect that we'll get ... maybe one more. But it's got to play itself out."
Defending national champ Florida (19-2 overall, 6-0 in SEC play) is a lock to get a bid. Barring a total collapse, tradition-rich Kentucky (16-5 overall, 5-2 SEC) will get one, too. After the Gators and Wildcats, however, the outlook gets awfully muddled.
Vanderbilt is 15-6 overall and 5-2 in the league but the Commodores have two games left with Florida, plus road games at Tennessee, Mississippi State and South Carolina. They also have a tough home date with Kentucky, which will be fired up after losing to Vandy 10 days ago in Lexington.
Georgia is 13-6 overall and 5-2 in league play but still has road tests left at Tennessee, at Vanderbilt, at South Carolina, at Ole Miss and at Kentucky.
Of the six SEC East teams, only South Carolina (12-7, 2-4) appears unlikely to challenge for an NCAA Tournament bid.
"Given what Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Kentucky have done, I think we're all in position," Pearl said. "Even South Carolina. I think this league is going to present the (Selection) Committee with as difficult a challenge as the SEC has ever presented."
The SEC West is even more muddled than the East. No team in the division has a winning record in league play. Arkansas and Auburn share the lead at 3-4. Alabama has a 15-5 overall record but is 2-4 in league play and has five SEC games left on the road, where it historically plays poorly.
Basically, Tennessee is battling Georgia and Vanderbilt for two NCAA bids. As a result, the Vols can greatly enhance their chances of earning an invitation by sweeping the Bulldogs (Wednesday in Knoxville and March 3 in Athens) and by beating the Commodores Feb. 10 in Knoxville.
Conceding that Florida is already "in," Pearl noted that the Vols essentially are competing "with Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia and South Carolina for two or three more spots" in the NCAA Tournament field.
The coach acknowledged that the Vols' strong RPI "will help us," but added that their victory total needs some padding.
"The biggest issue we have right now," he said, "is we've got to win games."