Vols' road just got tougher

Tennessee's chances for an NCAA Tournament bid took a double hit this week, with the announcements that (1) senior guard Jon Higgins is ineligible and (2) the Georgia Bulldogs will not participate in postseason action.

The impact of Higgins' unavailability is obvious. Backcourt play is crucial in March, and Higgins is far and away UT's most experienced guard, boasting 122 career starts. That's a lot, especially when you consider the relatively few career starts made by Tennessee's other backcourt players: Thaydeus Holden 31, C.J. Watson 27, Derek Stribling 10, Stanley Asumnu 5, John Winchester 1.

In addition, it's a safe bet that the NCAA Selection Committee will take a tougher look at Tennessee's qualifications now that one of its key players is out of the mix. If the team chemistry seems significantly damaged by Higgins' absence, the Vols won't be nearly as attractive to the Selection Committee.

Should the Vols manage to secure an NCAA bid, Higgins' absence looms even larger. He started four NCAA Tournament games in 2000 and 2001, committing just one turnover in 140 total minutes. Watson, Stribling, Asumnu and Winchester have never played in The Big Dance, while Holden played in one game as a freshman at Lamar three years ago.

So, how does Georgia's absence from postseason play hurt UT? Look what it did to the Vols' SEC Tournament bracket. Instead of playing Ole Miss and Mississippi State, Tennessee's first two games will be vs. Auburn and (probably) Kentucky.

Ole Miss brings a 13-14 overall record and a 4-12 league record into the tournament. What's more, the Rebels have lost nine of their last 10 games. They would've been a much softer opening test for Tennessee (17-10, 9-7) than Auburn, which is 19-10 overall, 8-8 in league action and trying to play its way into the NCAA Tournament.

Facing Mississippi State in Game 2 would've been considerably easier than facing Kentucky, as well. The Bulldogs are 19-8 overall and 9-7 in SEC play but lost by 10 to UT just last week. The Big Blue, on the other hand, is the hottest team in college basketball. Ranked No. 2 nationally, the Wildcats are 26-3 overall, 16-0 in SEC play and riding a 20-game winning streak.

It seems the Georgia Bulldogs did UT no favors by withdrawing from postseason play, even though their absence opens up one more at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

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