Saturday, August 2, 2014 · 4:35 a.m.
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Josh Richardson battles for a loose ball (Photo: Billy Weeks)

The last 17 days in December could well determine the last 17 days in March for Tennessee’s basketball team.

This is assuming the Vols perform in Southeastern Conference play the way they have in coach Cuonzo Martin’s first two years, which is to say somewhere between 10-12 wins. But that’s next month. This month, the Vols’ can’t yet play themselves into the NCAA Tournament, but they could sure play their way out.

That’s what’s happened the last two Decembers, when one, perhaps two more wins would have probably done the job. Two years ago, minus Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson, both of whom declared early for the NBA Draft, the Vols came up short and settled for the NIT. That was understandable, given that it was also Martin’s first season, but a home-court loss to Austin Peay and a couple of losses to Memphis—one that was all but in the bag in the Maui Invitational and another at home—ended up bumping the Vols out of the Big Dance after they’d come so close with a solid showing in the SEC.

Last year, the Vols again played well in conference, but it wasn’t quite enough. They missed the NCAAs by the scantest of margins. How scant? For that we consulted the man who coined the phrase “bracketology,” ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi.

“Had Tennessee beaten Georgetown last year,” Lunardi said matter-of-factly, “they would have gotten in.”

Vol fans may recall that game. Their boys lost 37-36 in a game in which they shot 27.3 percent from the free-throw line. Just an awful free-throw shooting performance, say, 45.4 percent, would have done the job in that game—two more points and a 38-37 win.

That’s how close the Vols came to the NCAA tournament—two free throws. Instead it was another NIT appearance, which they were clearly not interested in playing; they lost to Mercer in the first round. In Knoxville.

This year, Tennessee’s non-conference schedule strength sits at 224 after a 6-2 start, but in the last two weeks or so of December, they’ve got a chance to significantly improve that and also help secure that elusive trip to the Dance.

The Vols play just five games this month, and three of them could be huge to the cause. Here’s a closer look:

Dec. 14 at Wichita State

The numbers: RPI 13, versus RPI Top 50 2-0, non-conference schedule strength 109, record 8-0.

Good wins: BYU in Kansas, at Saint Louis.

Bad losses: none.

The scenario: The Shockers, who advanced to the Final Four last year, are that good again. Guards Ron Baker (15.3 ppg, .400 3PT) and Fred VanVleet (11.7 ppg, 6.2 apg) are excellent two-way players. Forward Cleanthony Early (14.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg) has double-double talent, and there’s depth in the post and shot-blocking ability. This team hates to allow opponents to score.

Dec. 18 vs. NC State

The numbers: RPI 147, versus RPI Top 50 0-0, non-conference schedule strength 254, record 6-2.

Good wins: The Wolfpack has beaten three solid mid-major teams—FGCU, Eastern Kentucky and Long Beach State.

Bad loss: NC Central at home. How does this happen?

The scenario: This is the gift that could keep on giving, because the Wolfpack’s RPI will improve as it goes through the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule. The game is in Knoxville. NC State is relying on young players. T.J Warren averages 22 points and seven boards, freshman point guard Cat Barber 13 points and almost four assists.

Dec. 30 vs. Virginia

The numbers: RPI 42, versus RPI Top 50 0-3, non-conference schedule strength 32, record 7-3.

Good wins: Davidson, SMU.

Bad loss: at Green Bay. The Cavaliers have also lost to VCU and No. 4 Wisconsin.

The sceneario: This won’t be a repeat of last year’s low-scoring meat grinder between the Cavs and Vols in Charlottesville, but Virginia is deliberate so don’t expect a 102-100 final score. It holds opponents to 55.1 points per game and .377 shooting from the field. The Cavs’ best player, All-American candidate Joe Harris, is averaging just 11.3 points, but he’s shooting .459 from 3.

So what do the Vols have to do to keep themselves in the NCAA picture? Winning 11 SEC games is a realistic goal. And then there are those last 17 days in December. Here’s what Joey Brackets thinks:

“Absolutely the Vols can help themselves,” Lunardi said. “First of all NC State’s not very good. And Virginia can’t score at all. But I think Virginia will stay around the good side of the bubble most of the season. I would say win two home games and then you get a free shot at Wichita State because you’re supposed to lose.”

And what if the Vols happened to win at Wichita State, which they beat at home last season?

“That would be very useful,” Lunardi said.

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