published Friday, February 28th, 2014

Basketball Vols still alive as March arrives

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin shouts instructions to his team during an NCAA basketball game against Missouri in Columbia, Mo., in this Feb. 15, 2014, file photo.
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin shouts instructions to his team during an NCAA basketball game against Missouri in Columbia, Mo., in this Feb. 15, 2014, file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Tennessee topped Mississippi State in a must-win endeavor Wednesday night in Starkville.

Does that change what we know? Not really. The Volunteers are flawed because of point guard deficiencies and offensive stagnation. They have to have Jordan McRae doing Jordan things or a surprise night from one of the misfit perimeter toys. Wednesday night it was all McRae, the steely-eyed senior who went for 29 and made the plays to deliver the goods.

Does it change what we believe about these Vols? Maybe. Consider this: Tennessee had to win. Mississippi State is terrible but the Vols had everything to lose and managed not to lose. They knew. Coach Cuonzo Martin knew it. Heck, even Spy knew it, and he was watching the History Channel and eating catfish. And with that knowledge can come pressure.

With pressure can come increased anxiety, and with that can come decreased production that can be especially painful against a weaker foe that starts to hang around.

The Vols ignored that and went to work. Good for them, and whether you believe Martin should be canned or extended, it's a plus in his ledger that his kids play hard for him every game.

But effort should be the baseline of our expectations for a bunch like these Vols, who swing the pendulum of performance ranging from top-shelf (hello, Virginia) to pedestrian.

Does Wednesday night matter? It does in that Tennessee stayed alive, and after speaking with ESPN college hoops analyst Andy Katz on "Press Row" on ESPN 105.1 FM Wednesday, we believe those last breaths are paramount for The Conz in particular and the league in general. Katz said the SEC could be a two-bid league for the NCAA tournament, and the muddling records of most of the conference speak to that.

The SEC is bad. Period. And for those arguing that the balance of the league is why there is a logjam of mediocrity, please. This is more parody than parity.

And the Vols are slap dab in the middle of it for another day.

With the Vols winning to live another day -- sad as that is, it's the baseline. But we must realize where we are and that the meaningless marathon that is the college hoops regular season is about to get good.

We are less than 24 hours from March. We're good with March. We like March. It's mad and that's cool.

So where do we stand? Great question, and here's a four-part scan around college hoops (we'd encourage you play along):

• North Carolina is a bracket killer. The Tar Heels have won 10 in a row, and point guard Marcus Paige has marbles. And skills. That said, UNC can fold at times and looks very pedestrian. A Final Four team or a quick out.

• If Wichita State runs the table, college basketball has to have the Shockers be a No. 1 seed. Guys like StuckinKent and his computer-crunching ilk can poke a slew of holes in Wichita State's resume since it has played exactly one team assured of a tournament spot. Still, if college basketball is ever to take its regular season seriously ever again, an unbeaten team ranked in the top five has to be a No. 1 seed.

• We still believe in Syracuse above all others, even if Jimmy Blow-up is in our doghouse. But the gap between the Orange and the Gators and the Me-Hawks is not as great as it was, and that's because of the Orange coming back to the pack.

• Creighton has a chance against just about anyone because of 30-point-a-night guy Doug McDermott.

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