KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The last time Tennessee baseball made it to an NCAA Regional was in 2005. Future number one overall draft pick Luke Hochevar took the mound for the Vols and their everyday lineup featured eight players hitting above .300.
The 2019 Vols have a chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 14 years. Tennessee beings the final series of the regular season Thursday night at home against Ole Miss (7 p.m. SEC Network). D1baseball.com currently has the Vols as one of the last five teams in the NCAA Tournament in their latest projection. They predict Tennessee will be the number three seed in the Chapel Hill Regional.
The NCAA committee usually likes for tournament teams to have at least a .500 record in conference play. The Vols sit at 12-15 in SEC play with three games against no. 15 Ole Miss left. That doesn't mean they need a sweep to earn an NCAA bid. Tennessee's current RPI ranking of 10 will certainly help them and they'll have a chance to pick up a couple wins at the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala. The Vols have already clinched a trip to Hoover after missing the conference tourney the last two seasons.
In the last five years, four SEC teams have been selected for the NCAA Tournament with a losing record in conference play:
2018 Texas A&M: 13-17 (won 3 games in SEC Tournament), RPI: 15
2015 Auburn: 13-17 (won 1 game in SEC Tournament), RPI: 22
2014 Kentucky: 14-16 (won 3 games in SEC Tournament), RPI: 19
2014 Texas A&M: 14-16 (lost first game in SEC Tournament), RPI: 39
VOLS NCAA PREDICTIONS
The NCAA bubble is weak this season and the SEC is expected to get 10 bids, like it did in 2018 and 2014, tying the record for the most by a conference.
In my opinion, here's what the potential results of this weekend's series could mean for Tennessee's NCAA hopes:
Vols sweep Ole Miss: A sweep would give Tennessee a 15-15 record in conference play and a top ten finish in the RPI. In this case I think they're a lock to make a regional but most likely would not be hosting.
Vols take 2-of-3: Winning the series would make UT 14-16 in SEC play with a great RPI. I think in this scenario the Vols would likely be in the NCAA tourney regardless of what happens in Hoover.
Vols drop 2-of-3: This would give UT a 13-17 conference record but here's where Tennessee's great RPI could help them. We've seen two SEC teams in the last four years make the NCAAs with a 13-17 record. Both had an RPI ranking of 22 or better and won at least one game in Hoover. The Vols might still be able to get a bid at 13-17 but in this case they should go win a game in Hoover to help their cause.
Rebels sweep Vols: Here's where Tennessee could get into some trouble. A 12-18 record in conference play won't look great to the committee. The RPI will help and the Vols will have to redeem themselves in Hoover. There is precedent for an SEC team to get in with 12 conference wins. Vanderbilt went 12-17 in 2009 and barely snuck into the SEC tournament (half game ahead of Kentucky for final spot), then won three games in Hoover to earn an NCAA bid. Mississippi State went to a regional in 2006 despite missing the SEC Tournament with a 12-17 record. Both of those teams were 34th in the RPI.
The Vols play at Lindsey Nelson Stadium Thursday at 7, Friday at 6:30 and Saturday at noon. The SEC Tournament begins Tuesday in Hoover, Ala. The top four teams get a bye and begin play on Wednesday. Tennessee could finish anywhere from 6th to 11th in the conference standings depending on what happens across the league this weekend.