KNOXVILLE — Tennessee enters its SEC basketball tournament opener Thursday afternoon with more work to do regarding its NCAA tournament hopes.
Yet the Volunteers won't be alone in that regard in Nashville.
Kentucky, Ole Miss and Alabama are Tennessee's bubble brethren, but the Vols are the only one in that group that plays in Thursday's opening round.
Though coach Cuonzo Martin said after Saturday's win against Missouri that he thought the Vols' job was done regarding the NCAA tournament, he said Monday he knows they can't relax now.
"I think you still need to win games," he said during his weekly news conference. "When you look at a body of work, and you can probably take 20 [at-large] teams, bubble teams ... Tennessee's just as good, if not better when you talk about the opponents we've played, the games we've won ... the schedule. I feel good about that standpoint.
"Like I told our guys, let's not leave this in anybody's hands. The best way to be sure about it is do what you need to do. We have to continue to win ballgames -- that's the most important thing."
Should the Vols handle business Thursday against South Carolina or Mississippi State, they would face Alabama on Friday in what some analysts have dubbed a "play-in game" for one of the final bids to the NCAA tournament, and a similar game could come if Ole Miss meets Kentucky in a semifinal.
Martin scoffed at that notion.
"You're talking about two different resumes when you look at the body of work," he said. "That's an easy way out, to say whichever team loses. That means you're not looking at the body of work.
"You're just looking at a game, and I don't think that's fair to either team."
The easiest way to leave no doubt about the NCAA tournament is winning the SEC tournament, something Tennessee has not done since 1979. Tennessee lost its opener to Ole Miss in a similar bubble predicament last season, and the Vols have won multiple games in the tournament just four times since their last tournament title. It may take two wins to feel good on Selection Sunday.
"You want to play on that stage," Martin said, "but the balance is you can't go in there like you're pressing like, 'Man, we've got to have this win.'"
Then again, the Vols have known the need to win games throughout its late-season surge.
"I think the SEC is totally wide open at this point," said Jordan McRae, Tennessee's top scorer. "It's a whole different atmosphere. You've really got to be ready to go, and you can't really look at who you beat before or how many times you beat them or [by] how many points.
"You've got to play every game like it's your last, because it could be."
Heading into the conference tournament later this week, the SEC's only locks for NCAA tournament bids are Florida and Missouri. Four more teams are trying to play their win into the field in Nashville. Here's a comparison of the resumes using the the RPI and strength-of-schedule numbers from CBS.
Team (Record) - RPI - SOS - OOC - vs. top 50 - vs. top 100 - Bad losses
Tennessee (19-11) - 55 - 41 - 42 - 4-4 - 9-9 - Georgia twice (126)
Kentucky (21-10) - 50 - 61 - 62 - 2-4 - 7-9 - Georgia (126)
Ole Miss (23-8) - 56 - 130 - 275 - 1-4 - 7-6 - South Carolina (211), Mississippi State (232)
Alabama (19-11) - 62 - 87 - 86 - 1-4 - 7-7 - Mercer (134), Tulane
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...