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Stunning late surge has Tennessee in contention for an NCAA bid

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Tennessee celebrates win over Vanderbilt (AP)

At this time one month ago, Tennessee was 2-5 in the SEC, under .500 for the season and well on its way to a losing record.

Four weeks later, the Vols are somehow on the cusp of NCAA tournament contention in a supposed rebuilding year.

Tennessee has elevated itself from anonymity into the at-large picture by reeling off eight wins in its final nine games culminating in Saturday's 68-61 victory over rival Vanderbilt. The Vols almost certainly wouldn't be in the field if the season ended today, but they've given themselves an opportunity to make a realistic case if they can continue their torrid play in the SEC tournament and reach the title game.

At 18-13 overall and 10-6 in the SEC, Tennessee boasts a sweep of Florida, a victory over Vanderbilt and a non-league win against UConn. The Vols' RPI is still in the mid 70s as a result of non-league losses against the likes of Oakland, Austin Peay and Charleston, but they can point to a 9-5 record since freshman forward Jarnell Stokes joined the team in mid-January.

What will give Tennessee a great chance of improving its profile next week in New Orleans is a potentially favorable SEC tournament draw.

Assuming Kentucky beats Florida in today's SEC regular season finale, Tennessee would be the No. 2 seed in the tournament. That would mean the Vols would get a very winnable quarterfinal against either Ole Miss or Auburn and avoid the top-seeded Wildcats until a potential title game.

How has Tennessee overcome the departure of coach Bruce Pearl and last year's stars Tobias Harris and Scottie Hopson? By adopting new coach Cuonzo Martin's defense-first philosophy.

Once a run-and-gun up-tempo program under Pearl, the Vols have allowed the third-fewest points per possession in SEC play (.95) and have allowed teams to shoot just 39.3 percent against them. High-powered Vanderbilt shot just 39 percent from the field on Saturday with its star trio of John Jenkins, Jeff Taylor and Festus Ezeli combining to miss 25 of 37 shots.

After the Vanderbilt game, reporters asked Martin during his news conference whether the Vols belong in the field of 68.

"Are we an NCAA tournament team? Yes," Martin said confidently. "Is there work to be done? I don't know. I'm not on the committee. We've got to continue to win ball games. But if you're talking about is this an NCAA tournament team? There's no doubt in my mind."

Martin's either lobbying or being a tad over-optimistic there, but that shouldn't discount what his team has accomplished. That Tennessee is even on the fringes of the at-large discussion is one of the college basketball season's pleasant surprises.

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