After falling just short of the NCAA tournament each of the past two years, Tennessee (16-11, 7-7 SEC) could fail to earn a bid again because of its inability to win close games.
Tennessee enters Wednesday’s game at Mississippi State (13-14, 3-11) holding a 2-10 record in games with single-digit margins and an 0-5 mark in matchups decided by five points or fewer.
The Vols, who have lost three of their past four overall, remain confident they can turn things around.
“It’s not over,” Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said. “We’ve still got four games left. We’ve still got the (SEC) tournament. The season’s not over yet. The (NCAA) tournament could still happen.”
The pattern of close losses continued Saturday with a 68-65 overtime defeat at Texas A&M that increased speculation regarding the future of Volunteers coach Cuonzo Martin.
Tennessee made six straight NCAA tournament appearances before Martin’s arrival. The Vols reached the NIT each of Martin’s first two seasons. Martin said he doesn’t “waste time and energy” worrying about his job security.
“If you put the work in, everything else will take care of itself,” Martin said. “I don’t have that time and energy (to worry about distractions). If it’s negative, I don’t consume myself with it.”
The Texas A&M game dropped Tennessee out of the mock NCAA tournament bracket produced by CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi still has Tennessee participating in a play-in game.
“They’ve got to win the games they’re supposed to win,” Palm said. “They’re not doing that.”
The Vols believe they can change that.
“It’s something that has to be done,” McRae said. “We’ve got to win these last four games. We’re real confident because we’re more than capable of winning these last four.”
Tennessee went 11-7 in games with single-digit margins last season, which makes the Vols’ struggles in close games this season hard to comprehend. Tennessee’s lack of production from its point guards may help explain the discrepancy.
Former Tennessee point guard Trae Golden was erratic last season, but he could carry a team when he was at his best. Golden has since transferred to Georgia Tech, where he’s averaging 13.1 points per game.
The Vols believed Antonio Barton, a natural shooting guard, could fill the void created by Golden’s departure. But the Memphis transfer lost his starting job midway through the season and has scored more than seven points just once in his past 11 games.
Barton splits time with freshman Darius Thompson, who hasn’t exceeded two points in any of Tennessee’s past six games.
“You’ve got to get production at that position,” Martin said. “(It’s) not so much scoring points (as) running the team, distributing the basketball, getting guys in position to score.”
Tennessee could regain some momentum against Mississippi State, which has lost nine straight games. Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon — both 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds — should have a major matchup advantage against a Mississippi State team that ranks last in the SEC in blocks and 12th out of 14 conference teams in rebound margin.
“Our lack of inside depth wasn’t an issue during non-conference games,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. “As we continued to play physical, big SEC teams, it’s proven to be a problem.”
Martin believes his team can still get an NCAA bid even if it doesn’t win the SEC tournament. Palm agreed it’s too early to rule out the Vols of an at-large consideration.
“If you’re on the bubble, you still have a chance,” Palm said. “Tennessee’s still on the bubble. There’s too much basketball left to be played to eliminate a team like Tennessee.”