Tennessee and its hope for the 1 seed stumble

Tennessee’s loss to Auburn on Saturday — while mired in quite a bit of goaltending controversy — cleared up the 1-seed debate entering Champ Week, as the Volunteers now need an SEC tournament championship to even get back in the discussion.

Depending on what Kentucky does against Florida this afternoon, Tennessee could end up as the 3-seed in the SEC tournament and the Volunteers’ Strength of Schedule numbers pale in comparison to the likes of Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke.

After back-to-back elite defensive performances against Kentucky and Mississippi State, though, Tennessee really struggled to guard Auburn, especially in the second half. The Tigers made 13 3-pointers on the day and turned it over just five times. In fact, it was the fifth straight road game that Tennessee has allowed at least one point per possession — and if you include a game against South Carolina in which the Vols allowed 0.99 points per possession, the streak would run to eight games.

The Volunteers aren’t as good defensively this season as they were last season, that’s not really for debate anymore. But the metrics are somewhat concerning for the NCAA tournament; they rank in the bottom half of the SEC in defensive turnover percentage and 3-point percentage allowed, which can cause problems against dynamic guards who can make shots.

Tennessee is still a Final Four and title contender; their offense is too good and they’re too experienced. But the Volunteers are likely out of the 1-seed discussion and have things to fine-tune in the next week and a half.

1. Virginia Cavaliers (27-2)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: Beat Syracuse 79-53 on Monday, vs. Louisville (Saturday)

Virginia’s second-half performance against Syracuse on Monday was one of the best 20 minutes of basketball we’ve seen from any team this season. The Cavaliers outscored the Orange — in the Carrier Dome — by 28 points. They made 10 of 11 3-pointers during one stretch, and Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome ended up scoring a combined 62 points and shooting 18-for-23 from 3-point range for the game. Over its past three games, Virginia is shooting 62.1 percent from beyond the arc.

2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (29-2)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: West Coast Conference tournament

If Sean Farnham’s remarks on Saturday night’s broadcast were any indication, it sounds as if Gonzaga could get Killian Tillie back at some point this season. Though Tillie hasn’t been a major factor this season because of injuries, he’s a versatile big man who can switch defensively and also step out and make shots. He provided an added dimension off the bench during his nine healthy games in January and early February.

3. Duke Blue Devils (26-4)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: Beat Wake Forest 71-70 on Tuesday, at North Carolina (Saturday)

It took Chaundee Brown missing a contested 3-footer at the buzzer for Duke to escape with a one-point home win over Wake Forest, but the Blue Devils were able to win nonetheless. RJ Barrett once again was the only consistent offense for Duke without Zion Williamson, but Mike Krzyzewski was adamant following the game that Williamson will return at some point this season — just perhaps not for the game at Carolina this weekend.

4. North Carolina Tar Heels (25-5)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: Beat Boston College 79-66 on Tuesday, vs. Duke (Saturday)

North Carolina is now one win away from at least a share of the ACC regular-season title after going to Boston College and cruising past the Eagles behind 17 points and 20 rebounds from Luke Maye. On Saturday, the Tar Heels have a rematch against Duke. In the first meeting in Durham, Carolina was aggressive in the paint and simply attacked Duke’s bigs with Maye, Cameron Johnson and Garrison Brooks. The three players combined for 70 points and 30 rebounds.

5. Kentucky Wildcats (25-5)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: Beat Ole Miss 80-76 on Tuesday, vs. Florida (Saturday)

We said heading into the week that Tennessee would have to guard the way it did against Kentucky on Saturday if the Volunteers wanted to make a deep run in March. And after holding the Wildcats to their worst offensive performance of the season over the weekend, Tennessee did the same to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs managed only 54 points on 69 possessions, shooting 33.3 percent from the field.

6. Tennessee Volunteers (27-4)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: Beat Mississippi State 71-54 on Tuesday, lost at Auburn 84-80 on Saturday

The Volunteers likely lost their chance at a share of the SEC regular-season title on Saturday, as LSU just needs to beat winless Vanderbilt in Baton Rouge in order to earn an outright championship. Tennessee is going to need Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden to find their perimeter shot before the NCAA tournament. In the Volunteers’ last seven games, the two guards are a combined 11-for-68 from 3-point range.

7. Michigan Wolverines (26-4)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: at Michigan State (Saturday)

Michigan still awaits the return of Charles Matthews, but the Wolverines have survived two games without him. Isaiah Livers slotted into the starting lineup, and he has been a plus because of his motor and contributions on the glass and his ability to step outside and make 3-pointers. He had 12 points and 10 rebounds, including three 3-pointers, against Nebraska — then followed it up with 11 points and five rebounds with three more 3-pointers at Maryland.

8. Michigan State Spartans (24-6)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: Beat Nebraska 91-76 on Tuesday, vs. Michigan (Saturday)

With Purdue losing at Minnesota on Tuesday, Michigan State now has a chance to force a share of the Big Ten regular-season title. The Spartans hammered Nebraska without Kyle Ahrens or Nick Ward, getting a combined 46 points and 10 3-pointers from seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins. Up next is a rematch with Michigan; Michigan State won the first game in Ann Arbor led by Cassius Winston.

9. LSU Tigers (25-5)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: Beat Florida 79-78 on Wednesday, vs. Vanderbilt (Saturday)

LSU came back late against Florida and finished the season with a 9-0 record on the road in SEC play. More important, the Tigers are now just one win from earning at least a share of the SEC regular-season title — and Will Wade’s team gets to face last-place Vanderbilt in Baton Rouge on Saturday. If they win — even if Tennessee wins at Auburn — the Tigers will earn the 1-seed in the conference tournament thanks to their victory over the Volunteers in late February.

10. Texas Tech Red Raiders (25-5)
Previous ranking:
This week: Beat Texas 70-51 on Monday, at Iowa State (Saturday)

Chris Beard and the Red Raiders are now one win from at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title after notching their eighth win in a row in a rout of Texas. Iowa State beat Texas Tech in Lubbock back in mid-January, but the Red Raiders are a different offensive team than they were a couple of months ago. Only one team has stayed within single digits of Tech during the winning streak, and the Red Raiders have scored at least 1 point per possession in six consecutive games — 1.31 per possession in their past five before Monday’s victory.

11. Houston Cougars (28-2)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: Beat SMU 90-79 on Thursday, at Cincinnati (Sunday)

Thursday was a good night for Houston. Not only did the Cougars beat SMU to bounce back from their loss to UCF last weekend, but Cincinnati also lost to UCF in Orlando. As a result, Houston is alone in first place at the top of the AAC standings and is guaranteed at least a share of the regular-season championship. Of course, the season finale on Saturday comes at Cincinnati — the Cougars won the first meeting between the two teams in Houston by seven.

12. Purdue Boilermakers (22-8)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: Lost to Minnesota 73-69 on Tuesday, at Northwestern (Saturday)

On a night when Minnesota probably punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament, Purdue also left the door open for Michigan or Michigan State to forge a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship. All three teams are tied at 15-4 and the two in-state rivals face each other Saturday. Purdue travels to Northwestern. The Boilermakers will need Carsen Edwards to do better than he did Tuesday: 7-for-31 from the field, 3-for-15 from 3-point range.

13. Kansas Jayhawks (22-8)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: Lost to Oklahoma 81-68 on Tuesday, vs. Baylor (Saturday)

Kansas’ season-long struggles away from home once again were apparent Tuesday night. The Jayhawks finished 3-6 on the road in the Big 12, and combined with road losses at Arizona State and Kentucky, they are just 3-8 in road games this season. Kansas struggled to score consistently, shot just 7-for-31 from 3-point range and turned it over 15 times. The Jayhawks are just limited offensively and when they don’t have the magic of Allen Fieldhouse, it’s tough for them to beat NCAA tournament-caliber opponents.

14. Florida State Seminoles (25-6)
Previous ranking:
This week: Beat Virginia Tech 73-64 on Tuesday, beat Wake Forest 65-57 on Saturday

The Seminoles have now won 12 of their last 13 games, with the lone loss coming at North Carolina in late February. They have secured a double-bye in the ACC tournament and their depth, versatility, size and experience make them a tough team to prepare for on a short turnaround. Saturday’s performance wasn’t great, but they locked down defensively — especially after halftime. Wake Forest made just three 3-pointers.

15. Wisconsin Badgers (21-9)
Previous ranking:
This week: Beat Iowa 65-45 on Thursday, at Ohio State (Sunday)

The Badgers have now won 10 of their last 13 games after crushing Iowa by 20 on Thursday — although it was their seventh time in the last eight games scoring fewer than one point per possession. On the plus side, it was their best defensive performance of the season. Khalil Iverson had another nice game for the Badgers, posting his first career double-double. Iverson is now averaging 11.8 points and 6.6 rebounds in his last five games.

16. Virginia Tech Hokies (23-7)
Previous ranking:
This week: Lost at Florida State 73-64 on Tuesday, beat Miami 84-70 on Friday

Virginia Tech remains in the rankings after handling Miami on Friday night, behind another stellar effort from Nickeil Alexander-Walker: 21 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists. The Hokies have now won five of seven to end the regular season. Another positive moment from Friday: Justin Robinson started and played one second due to senior night, but at the very least, he appears to be improving and closer to a return.

Dropped out: Marquette (No. 13)

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