Show Me My Opponent: Auburn (#1)

Since the schedule was first announced, this is the part of the season I think pretty much everyone’s been anxious about: The Stretch. At one point of the offseason, The Stretch looked like it might contain four games against KenPom Top 25 teams, with the easy game being a road trip to Arkansas, a place Tennessee never wins at. I advocated that Tennessee really needed to rack up as many conference wins as possible to feel okay about making the NCAA Tournament prior to this stretch.

Here we are, at the start of The Stretch, and in a way, it’s both better and worse. Better because, for Tennessee, almost every non-Arkansas opponent turned out to be either marginally or seriously worse than expected. Auburn may be 22-4, but they rank #35 in KenPom because they’ve been hilariously lucky in close games. Arkansas is the only surprisingly good team, and yet they’re still the slightest opponent left at #48. Florida…genuinely, if you can help me figure out what they are, I’d appreciate it. Kentucky is the best team in the SEC, which is good enough to be #28 overall.

There are no KenPom Top 25 teams in The Stretch. That’s excellent. What’s not excellent is that Tennessee has only racked up seven conference wins to this point in a season where they really needed eight or more to feel good about this. Two games in particular will sit poorly with the players and staff if they can’t turn it around in these five games: the 63-58 home loss to a terrible Texas A&M squad and last weekend’s two-point road loss to South Carolina. The second of those is far less offensive to me than dropping a home decision to a team that has lost to Harvard, Temple, and Fairfield.

It’s all in the past now. Tennessee can rectify those games by winning one more game than they’re expected to. Both KenPom and Torvik anticipate Tennessee finishing the season 2-3 in these five games. That would add at least one Quadrant 1 win, which brings Tennessee to three on the season…or the same number as 21-6 Saint Mary’s, which is not good when you’ll end up playing six more Q1 opponents than they will. If Tennessee can get to four, that gets them onto the bubble. It’s that simple. Can Tennessee actually Do It? We’ll see.

NEXT PAGE: Taking Tiger mountain (by strategy)

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