Tennessee has never made a Final Four. The program has earned a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament nine times. It has appeared in the AP Top 10 at some point during 23 different seasons. Yet the school has advanced to even an Elite Eight only once, where it lost 70-69 to Michigan State.

Is this finally the year?

It sure feels like it might be.

At DraftKings, Tennessee is currently +280 to make the Final Four this season. Only Houston, Purdue, and defending champ UConn have shorter odds. BartTorvik gives UT a 24.7% chance to make its first national semifinal. At 22-6, Tennessee has played like one of the best teams in the country this season.

“Their last 11 wins they’ve scored 80-plus points in nine of them,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said Friday ahead of the Crimson Tide’s much-anticipated matchup with the Vols. “You go back to last year, the last 11 wins last year, they scored 80 or more in one of them. So (it’s) a team whose offense has gotten extremely good to go with an elite-level defense.

“And now that’s why teams are probably rightfully so talking about a Final Four run for this team. Because they’re that good on both sides of the ball.”


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UT has played one of the toughest schedules in the top division of college basketball, according to KenPom. Its adjusted strength of schedule ranks 13th, bolstered by playing Purdue, Kansas, and North Carolina in the nonconference portion of the schedule. The Vols lost all three of those games, but early-season contests away from home against No. 2, No. 1, and No. 17 are valuable in the postseason regardless of the result.

And despite the torturous trek, this is one of college basketball’s most efficient teams. UT is 15th in offensive shot quality and third in defensive shot quality. On both sides of the floor, UT ranks inside the top 20 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metrics.

Barring a late-season collapse, Tennessee will finish with its fourth consecutive top-10 (per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency). For the first time during that stretch, though, UT has a capable offense to pair with its smothering defense. Over the last three years, the offense has ranked 85th, 35th, and 64th in adjusted efficiency.

Dalton Knecht (20.8 points per game, 60% true shooting) is looking to become the first Volunteer to average 20 per game over an entire season since the 2015-16 season.

“They just took a very good team, one of the best teams in the league,” Oats said. “(And) added the leading scorer in the league to it in Knecht. And now they’ve got a team that’s primed to get a No. 1 or No. 2 seed (in the NCAA Tournament). And I’m sure anything short of a Final Four run, they’d be disappointed with the end of the year.”

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History says this could be the season.

Fourteen of the last 15 national champions have ended the year inside the top 25 in both KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiencies. Thirteen of the 15 have been top-20 in both categories. Every national champion but UConn in the last 15 years has had either a top-10 offense or a top-10 defense when it won the title.

Further, among the 60 Final Four participants in the last 15 years, 41 (68.3%) have used a top-20 defense to get there. No problem, that’s Tennessee’s bread and butter. Tennessee just needs the offense to keep humming. The teams that didn’t have a top-20 defense had an elite offense. You gotta have one or the other to get there. To win the whole thing, you gotta have both.

And that’s what makes the late-season surge so promising. Tennessee has won five straight games and 11 of its last 13. During that stretch, UT isn’t just scraping by teams in a parade of slugfests. Tennessee is averaging 83.5 points a game since Jan. 13. (The national scoring average this season is just under 74 points a game.)

The fourth-ranked Vols have a trio of statement games left on the regular-season slate before postseason play begins. They meet No. 14 Alabama on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). Tennessee heads to Columbia next Wednesday to face No. 18 South Carolina, then it closes with No. 16 Kentucky at home on March 9.

A No. 1 seed is attainable. So much of Tournament success comes down to pathway. That will largely be outside of the Volunteers’ control. But so far, they’ve done everything to put themselves in a position to make some school history.