Tennessee basketball started off the back half of SEC play with a loss, leaving the Vols with an uphill climb to get back in the SEC title race.
Alabama and South Carolina are in a first-place tie with a 9-2 conference record, while Auburn is in second place at 8-3. The Vols are a half-game back of Auburn, sitting in third at 7-3. UT has played one fewer conference game than the other three due to the open week in late January. Those three teams will have their open date in the next month.
Here is where Tennessee’s SEC title hopes stand after its 85-69 loss at Texas A&M:
Tennessee basketball’s SEC schedule is an uphill climb
The Vols (17-6) face the three cellar dwellers of the SEC in their next three games against Arkansas (12-11), Vanderbilt (6-17) and Missouri (8-16). That is a chance to keep pace if not gain ground on the leaders. The final five games are a gauntlet. Tennessee hosts Texas A&M (15-8) and Auburn (19-5) before playing at South Carolina (21-3) and Alabama (17-7) and closing the regular season at home against Kentucky (16-7).
All five of the final regular-season opponents are in the top-half of the SEC standings as of Sunday.
How Tennessee basketball can win 2024 SEC championship
Tennessee can’t afford any more missteps and has to steal a win at some point. A probable outcome is the Vols have to win at Alabama, which is currently predicted to win the SEC by KenPom with a 14-4 mark. UT and Auburn are predicted to finish 13-5 with South Carolina at 12-6. KenPom predicts Alabama as UT’s lone loss in the remainder of the regular season.
But first Tennessee has to avoid any blunders in the next three games. Vanderbilt played UT tough for a half in Nashville and Missouri will try to slow the tempo drastically to compete. Then it is a matter of UT protecting its home court three times against good teams, beating South Carolina in Columbia and stealing a road win at Alabama. It is likely UT would need to go 4-1 in that five-game run to be in good position to win the SEC.
Tennessee would be in a better spot if Alabama and South Carolina lose other games, especially if that means UT avoids tiebreaker scenarios with the Gamecocks if the teams split the regular-season matchups.
Why Tennessee basketball’s loss to South Carolina is an anchor
Every loss counts the same, but Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina looms largest in the SEC standings.
Winning on the road is hard and Tennessee lost to two veteran teams at Mississippi State and Texas A&M. Those are part of the game, especially in a season where home teams are knocking off top-10 teams at a crazy clip.
The Vols losing to then-unranked South Carolina at Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center set them behind schedule for an SEC title push. UT has to make up for that loss likely with a win at South Carolina to balance the outcomes.
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.