This is the first season under Bruce Pearl where in late February the Tennessee Volunteers are worried about survival instead of seeding. The 81-76 win last night over Mississippi State was a must win.
Welcome to life on the bubble.
It seems like those early season wins against Georgetown and Marquette were in a whole other season.
Tennessee started the season in the top 10 and the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC. The Vols seemed to be living up to that early season buzz as Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism, and J.P. Prince were leading the younger Vols through a tough non-conference schedule in 2008.
Then the calendar year changed over to 2009, and Tennessee started to get pushed around. Tennessee lost on the road at Kansas and then had their 37-game home winning streak snapped in their second loss to Gonzaga.
In what was a once an impossible place to get a win, opponents started winning games in Thompson-Boling Arena. Kentucky's Jodie Meeks dropped a record 54 on the Vols in Knoxville, and then a pair of Tigers, Memphis and LSU, both got wins on Tennessee's home floor.
Tennessee has at least righted the ship at home, but now it has become an uphill battle for the Vols to get a ticket to the big dance.
The biggest problem for the Vols this season has been the inability to finish games. Tennessee had the lead late in games against Memphis, LSU, and Auburn and were not able to put them away, instead losing games that they would have won the last few seasons.
Much of that has to do with youth in the backcourt. You can't lost players like Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith and not expect a drop-off in experience. Bruce Pearl had relied on those two guys to hit a clutch shot, make a big steal, or play smart defense.
There are three games left in the regular season. Tennessee plays at Florida, at South Carolina, and home against Alabama. If Tennessee can win all three, they should be a lock to get to the NCAA Tournament. However, it looks more like Tennessee will only win the game against Alabama.
If that happens, Tennessee will be 18-12 overall and 9-7 in the SEC. Tennessee will have to rely on their No. 2 strength of schedule and 26 ranking in the RPI.
This is part of the Madness that Tennessee did not want to be a part of.