By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Coming off of back-to-back wins against Florida and Kentucky, Tennessee had generated a lot of NCAA Tournament buzz heading into Senior Day at Thompson-Boling Arena for a rematch against Auburn on Saturday. Tennessee had to hold off a furious Florida rally the previous weekend to avoid blowing a 19-point second half lead to beat the Gators and then had to overcome a 17-point deficit at Rupp Arena to upset the Wildcats. The Vols needed a win over the Tigers to keep the momentum going in the push for a potential at-large bid into the tournament.
Ultimately, Tennessee might’ve just run out of gas.
The Vols fell to Auburn 85-63 on Saturday to put an end to the short-lived chatter that Tennessee could sneak into the big dance without winning the SEC Tournament in Nashville. ESPN color analyst Jimmy Dykes said during the broadcast that Bracketologist Joe Lunardi believed the Vols could steal an at-large bid with a win over Auburn and two or more wins in Nashville.
The high quantity of minutes being asked of Tennessee’s starting five in the past week appeared to finally take its toll. All five starters played 34 minutes or more in the win over Florida and 30 or more at Rupp Arena last Tuesday. Jalen Johnson played 21 minutes total between those two games, 17 of which came against Kentucky. All other reserves played less than ten minutes.
Four of Tennessee’s best five played 35 minutes or more on Saturday. The exception being Josiah-Jordan James, who followed up his two best performances of the season by shooting just 1 of 6 for three points and finishing with three boards, an assist and four turnovers in 23 minutes. Johnson played 23 minutes off the bench with the rest of the bench combining for seven total.
Now it seems the Volunteers (17-14, 9-9) need to win four games in four days to make the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. Tennessee received a first round bye and will face Alabama Thursday afternoon at 1 p.m. EST. The winner will meet top-seeded Kentucky in the quarterfinals on Friday.
Auburn (25-6, 12-6) shot 43% from 3-point range and 50% from the floor overall. The Tigers hit 14 shots from downtown and never trailed Saturday. Auburn locked up the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament and will play Friday against the winner of Texas A&M and Missouri.
“I told Bruce [Pearl] I thought it was the best I’ve seen them play all year,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said after the game. “They played like a team that was fighting for second place in the league and a seed. All I can do is take my hat off to them because I thought they played well.”
Auburn was led by Samir Doughty, who shot 8 of 13 from behind the arc and finished with a game-high 32 points.
“That’s about as good as we can play,” Pearl said. “Offensively, I felt like we controlled the game with the things that we did. We got open looks and the kids knocked them down. Samir Doughty showed why he should be an all-conference player. A lot of the pieces kind of came together.”
Every time Tennessee started to show some rhythm on offense, Auburn seemed to have a response. Trailing by as many as 17 at one point in the game, Tennessee used a 10-1 run midway though the second half to pull within five. Doughty answered immediately with a 3, Auburn scored on its next three possessions and the Tigers had a 12-point lead. When Santiago Vescovi hit a deep ball to make it a ten-point game with just under five minutes remaining, Doughty hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Tigers a 16-point edge and essentially finish any hopes of another Tennessee rally.
Tennessee won the turnover battle and kept Auburn from living at the free throw line. The Vols committed just 11 turnovers and outshot the Tigers at the charity stripe, 24-19, but Tennessee only shot 33% from the field and were dominated on the glass.
Add that to Auburn’s shooting spree with Doughty’s performance and that about sums it up.
SEC week in review
On Saturday in Gainesville, Florida shot 52% from the field, 50% from 3, committed just ten turnovers, held an 18-point lead with less than 12 minutes to play…and still lost at home to a shorthanded Kentucky team. Nick Richards scored 17 of his 19 points after the break to help the Wildcats stun Florida, and Kentucky did it without Ashton Hagans, who John Calipari said missed the game for a personal reason. The Gators would’ve had a double bye in the SEC Tournament and been the No. 2 seed with a win. Instead, Florida has to play Thursday against the winner of Georgia and Ole Miss and would then have to get through Mississippi State in the quarterfinals.
LSU beat Georgia 94-64 to conclude a disappointing second half of the SEC schedule. After starting 8-0 in conference play the Tigers finished 4-6 in their last ten. This team plays to the level of its competition too often. LSU has four Quadrant 1 wins to its name, but its best win according to the NET is a two-point victory over a 12-loss Florida team at home. I’ll be surprised if the Tigers make the Sweet 16.
For a while the SEC has been looking like a four-bid league for the tournament with a decent chance to get a fifth team in the field. Saturday might’ve changed that. Last week South Carolina and Arkansas made appearances on the bubble with the Gamecocks still being in the Next Four Out entering the weekend. Then South Carolina lost to Vanderbilt, Arkansas fell to Texas A&M and Alabama was destroyed by Missouri.
That leaves Mississippi State, which defeated Ole Miss to reappear on Lunardi’s Next Four Out. The Bulldogs are the only SEC team on Lunardi’s bubble after the aforementioned losses on Saturday. Mississippi State has a decent NET and strength of schedule, but only two Quadrant 1 wins with a pair of Quadrant 3 losses. A potential win over Florida in Nashville could present an opportunity against Kentucky. I’m not crazy about their chances, but the Bulldogs have a shot.
Weekend Bubble Watch
Three SEC bubble teams pretty much surrendered their at-large chances on Saturday. Several other power conference teams missed opportunities that could’ve punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
NC State is the lone bubble team in the ACC, which feels weird to say, but it’s true. The Wolfpack took care of Wake Forest on Friday, but have still lost three of five. Losing to Duke and Florida State are excusable, but the loss to North Carolina might keep the Wolfpack out of the field again. Not to mention the mid-February defeat at Boston College. Lunardi has NC State as the very last of his Last Four In, but there are teams on the outside looking in (Xavier, Wichita State, Richmond) that wouldn’t surprise me if they moved ahead in the pecking order. A 4-5 record in Quadrant 2 and two Quadrant 3 losses doesn’t blow me away.
Cincinnati kept its tournament hopes alive on Saturday. Barely. The Bearcats needed a late tip-in from Trevon Scott to complete a double-digit comeback and avoid a bad loss to Temple at home. Still, I don’t see it with this team. Just two Quadrant 1 wins, four Quadrant 3 losses and nothing out of conference play that really helps the resume. The slow start in John Brannen’s first season may ultimately be its downfall in what would be a disappointing finish to Jarron Cumberland’s career.
Memphis may have had its hopes dashed Sunday afternoon at Houston. The Tigers enter the conference tournament with just two Quadrant 1 wins, three Quadrant 3 losses and a mediocre strength of schedule.
Wichita State may have put itself back in the mix with a win over Tulsa in the regular season finale to deny the Golden Hurricane the American regular season crown. Like Memphis and Cincinnati, Wichita State only has two Quadrant 1 wins. Unlike those two teams, however, the Shockers don’t have any losses beyond Quadrant 2.
Lunardi had the American as a two-bid league as of Sunday morning. If that’s the case, I’d remove Tulsa and insert Wichita State. Tulsa has just two Quadrant 1 wins, a loss in both Quadrants 3 and 4, and a non-conference schedule that ranks outside the top 300. Tulsa is just an OK team that had a great conference run, but it’s not a tournament team and will need to win its league tourney to suggest otherwise.
Texas Tech remains in the projected field despite a home loss to Kansas (I mean, I guess the Jayhawks are good at basketball, or whatever), but it would’ve been nice to have wrapped up the regular season with a big win at home. Kinda like what West Virginia did by beating Baylor in Morgantown. Oklahoma rallied from a 19-point deficit to avoid a bad loss to TCU. Texas wasn’t as lucky, blowing its five-game win streak to a mediocre Oklahoma State squad. By 22. Yuck. Texas is still in good position for the field. It has five Quadrant 1 wins and no losses outside the top two quadrants and Lunardi still has the Longhorns in Last Four In.
I think Xavier should be in the field. Its strength of schedule is really strong and it has a solid NET with no bad losses, but a losing record in league play—even in the Big East—is going to leave things up to chance. Saturday’s loss to Butler, thanks to Kamar Baldwin’s game-winning 3 with one second remaining could really hurt the Musketeers if they don’t have a strong showing in the Big East Tournament.
Marquette will really be testing the committee’s stance on “November means just as much as February and March” heading into postseason play. The Golden Eagles ended the season losing six of seven with the last two coming against Big East bottom-dwellers DePaul and Saint John’s by a combined three points. Marquette has a top 30 NET and a top 10 strength of schedule, but man, that’s not a great finish.
I’ve acknowledged all season that the Big Ten is deserving of getting nine or ten teams into the field. It clearly has the most teams that are worthy of being in the tournament, but I’ve put my foot down on Purdue sliding in. After recent wins over Indiana and Iowa, I was starting to come around on the Boilermakers. Then Purdue to Rutgers at home. Monster props to the Scarlet Knights, who should be going dancing for the first time in my lifetime (no, I’m not 13-years-old, shut up), but 15 losses just isn’t impressive for a tournament team to me. Lunardi’s dropped Purdue to his Next Four Out. Barring a big run in the league tournament (and the Big Ten is the league where that could happen with nearly any team in the conference) Purdue is headed to the NIT.
Also in the Big Ten, Indiana failed to take advantage of a big opportunity and fell to Wisconsin at home. Indiana led by nine midway through the second half before its offense went stagnant with a six-minute scoreless drought. Lunardi still has the Hoosier’s in the field, for now.
Some losses were more forgivable. In the Pac-12 Stanford was bested by Oregon in Eugene. Not the worst crime of the century. Really not a crime at all, but the Cardinal likely would’ve guaranteed themselves a tournament bid with a sweep of the Ducks. In Los Angeles, USC’s Jonah Mathews hit a last-second 3 to help the Trojans stun UCLA and keep the Bruins from winning a share of the league regular season title. Lunardi has USC, UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State all in the tournament field, but all four of them are either among his Last Four Byes or Last Four In. For what it’s worth, all four of those teams should be in. All four of them have five or more Quadrant 1 wins and UCLA actually has six to overcome two bad losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton. Hard to believe this league needed Oregon to go on a run in the Pac-12 tourney just to get a third team in.
Northern Iowa was bounced in the Missouri Valley quarterfinals by Drake—the No. 8 seed. Initially, Lunardi had the Panthers still in the field with the league getting two teams in. After play concluded on Saturday, Lunardi had dropped UNI into his Next Four Out. The Panthers had the makeup of a team that could’ve threatened some power conference teams in the NCAA Tournament, but only one Quadrant 1 win, three Quadrant 3 losses and a strength of schedule outside the top 100 won’t get this team in as an at-large.
Let’s Go Dancing!
If there was any team in the Mountain West Conference that could steal a bid by upending San Diego State, the Aggies of Utah State were the team to do it. Utah State was on the outside looking in on Lunardi’s bubble on Friday, then Sam Merrill hit a game-winning 3 over K.J. Feagin to give the MWC a second team in the field. Merill was fantastic, scoring 27 points or more in all three conference tournament games.
Last year, Belmont received an at-large bid into the tournament. This year it needed to win the Ohio Valley, and the Bruins found a way in a 76-75 thriller over Murray State. It’s unfortunate for former Tennessee GA Matt McMahon, who was looking for his third straight trip to the tournament with the Racers and first after the departure of Ja Morant. Belmont found a way back to the big dance following the retirement of legendary coach Rick Byrd.
Winthrop avoided a third meeting with Radford and instead won the rubber match against Hampton in the Big South final on Sunday. Former Tennessee forward D.J. Burns led the Eagles with 16 points to help Winthrop advance to its first NCAA Tournament since 2017.
With Northern Iowa failing to capitalize on its regular season crown in the Missouri Valley, Bradley stepped in, taking advantage of the lack of the league’s top two seeds and defeated Valparaiso in Sunday’s final to return to the NCAA Tournament. The Braves defeated Drake in the semifinal before defeating Valpo, which knocked off the No. 2 seed Loyola-Chicago earlier in the week (sorry, Sister Jean).
Liberty defeated Lipscomb in the Atlantic Sun final for the second straight year to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Last season the Flames upset Mississippi State in the opening round as a No. 12 seed. They return five of their top six leading scorers from that squad and have plenty of experience heading into the tournament.
The only conference tournament that ends on Monday is the Southern Conference, where former Tennessee assistant Steve Forbes and ETSU will look to secure a tournament big against defending champion Wofford. Lunardi believes the Buccaneers have a chance to get into the field as an at-large bid and had them as a No. 10 seed as of Sunday.