All of the experts see both teams "on the bubble" for a bid and many list either the Vols or the Tigers among the "last four in" or "first four out" of the 68-team field. This is life on the edge, hoops style.
It's entirely possible that the winner of today's contest at Thompson-Boling Arena will wind up playing in The Dance, while the loser will wind up playing a first-round home game in the NIT. Is the NCAA really that much more attractive than the NIT? Is Beyonce really that much more attractive than Roseanne? Yes and yes.
Given that an NCAA berth could be clinched or squandered this afternoon, there is tremendous pressure on both Tennessee (19-11 overall, 10-7 SEC) and Missouri (21-9, 9-8). The team that does the best job of managing that pressure most likely will win.
So, how do the Vols strike that fine balance between exhibiting a sense of urgency and succumbing to nerves?
"You've always got to be loose; you've got to have fun," head coach Cuonzo Martin said on Friday. "I tell those guys all the time: Taking one game at a time is the most important thing. You play as hard as you can play, you prepare like you need to prepare, then you let the chips fall where they may.
"I try to stay away from urgency. (The key) is just understanding about taking care of the task at hand. I never want our guys pressing. I want them playing hard and having fun."
Tennessee apparently has done a good job of that lately. Mindful that one more loss could be devastating, the Big Orange has put together a modest three-game winning streak – prevailing at Mississippi State, hammering Vanderbilt in Knoxville, then blasting Auburn on The Plains. So far, the win-or-else pressure has not gotten to the Vols.
"The leaders on the team are doing a great job of not walking around saying, ‘These are must-win games,'" explained senior wing Jordan McRae, who is one of those leaders. "If we play our game and play as hard as we can, we feel we can beat anybody."
Senior point guard Antonio Barton deftly illustrated the fine line between recognizing a game's significance and overreacting to its significance. After conceded that today's showdown with Missouri is "huge," he added: "Every game from here on out is huge. We're all playing for something … to be playing in March. But we've just got to come in and take it as another game on the schedule. We can't worry about The Tournament or anything."
Adding to the pressure on the Vols is the fact McRae, Barton, Jeronne Maymon and D'Montre Edwards will be making their final home appearances this afternoon. Barton conceded that the pre-game festivities will present a unique challenge.
"You enjoy the moment when they call your name on Senior Day," he said. "But once that's over you've got to get locked in for the game. We still have to get this win. We're still fighting for something."
That unspoken "something" is an NCAA Tournament bid, of course. The only players on this Tennessee squad who have participated in The Dance are Barton (three times at the University of Memphis), McRae (as a Vol freshman in 2011) and Maymon (as a sophomore in '11).
Despite the pressures of Senior Day and bubble basketball, the Vols insist they are relaxed heading into what projects to be the biggest game of the season.
"It's just another regular game, at the end of the day," Maymon said. "You don't want to get over-anxious for it or anything like that. Emotions will be riding high, seeing how it's Senior Day, but we're still coming out here to play Tennessee basketball."
GAME NOTES: In addition to its NCAA Tournament implications, today's game could have a major impact on the upcoming SEC Tournament. A Tennessee win would clinch the No. 4 seed for the conference tourney, giving the Vols byes through Rounds 1 and 2. A Tennessee win, coupled with a Georgia loss at LSU, would give the Big Orange the No. 3 seed for the league tournament. That would mean two byes and no chance to meet top-ranked Florida before the title game…. Tennessee also hosted Missouri in last year's Senior Day, winning that one 64-62…. The Vols are 3-0 since Barton rejoined the starting lineup. He has shot 55 percent (11 of 20) from the field and 60 percent (9 of 15) from 3-point range the past two games…. Today's game will be televised by ESPN, with tipoff set for 4:10. Pre-game festivities, including the introduction of all four senior Vols, will begin at 3:45.