Don't look now, but the Tennessee Volunteers have played the toughest schedule in men's college basketball this season. Yes, that's right, they're No. 1 nationally in Strength of Schedule and are now No. 16 nationally in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
What's more, UT is the highest ranked team in the RPI that is unranked in the polls. The Big Orange is the only team in the nation that has beaten fourth-ranked Pittsburgh, and they did it by a wide margin on the road.
They are also one of only two teams that has beaten seventh-ranked Villanova, and they also did that on the road.
Despite all the turmoil Tennessee has faced this season, they have turned around their 0-2 start in the Southeastern Conference and have now won four straight in the league, including two road games, at Georgia, and at a place they hadn't won since 2003, at Ole Miss.
It was the largest margin of victory UT has had on the road in the SEC in two years. Moreover, they whipped cross-state arch-rival Vanderbilt, which is right behind them at 18th in the RPI, as well.
The Vols are on a roll. They go to Auburn on Thursday night and then face Alabama at home in the final game that interim coach Tony Jones will direct this season. They will be favored in both games, and then will go on the road to play Kentucky in Lexington, when head coach Bruce Pearl will don his Big Orange Blazer once his SEC-imposed suspension is over.
He has out-coached John Calipari several times in the past, and odds are he can do it again. Pearl will coach both games against the Wildcats.
Look for Tennessee to crack the polls again this week. They are certainly deserving of being ranked again, despite some untimely losses to inferior foes over the holidays. This team has proved its resiliency and strength.
Brian Williams has become a beast under the basket, turning in another double-double on the road yesterday.
The talent is there for the Volunteers to go to the NCAA Tournament for the sixth year in a row, a first for the program. In fact, they could easily be in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in Pearl's career on The Hill, and depending on their bracket, might equal last year's Elite Eight team, the first time UT had ever made it that far in the Big Dance.
Another thing this Tennessee team can prove is that it can win the SEC Tournament again, something they haven't done since 1979, and something they've never done since the tournament has been held in the Georgia Dome, where it will be played this March.
That is a worthy and achievable goal for this year's squad.
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