As the month of February moves forward, thoughts of March begin to creep into everybody's mind. For the Lady Vols, such thoughts usually center around one question: can they get a number one seed in the NCAA bracket? In a blissful contrast to last year, the short answer is most definitely a "yes". But is winning out enough? What if they lose a game? How much help will the Lady Vols need?
First, let's look at the current rankings. Per the AP:
Eliminating the Obvious
First, there are only four #1 seeds up for grabs in the NCAA tournament, and UConn will have one of them. They are very heavily senior- and junior-laden, much like Tennessee's national championship runs in 2007 and 2008, and nobody on their schedule is getting in their way. Even with two losses, they would most likely stay ahead of Tennessee due to the way they have embarrassed teams like Stanford throughout the season. Like Tennessee before them, they are showing what happens when a group of girls play together for several years in a row. Until there's strong reason to do otherwise, pencil them in as a #1 seed.
Eliminating the Chasers
Behind Tennessee are Xavier, Ohio State, Duke, West Virginia, Florida State, and Baylor. All of these teams have three, four, or five losses and can only hope to move ahead of Tennessee if the Lady Vols drop a game or more. But even dropping one game wouldn't necessarily drop Tennessee. At this point, it's reasonable to assume that they Lady Vols are one of four teams looking for the remaining three #1 slots.
The Tennessee-Stanford game earlier in the season helps clean the picture up a bit more. One-loss Stanford beat Tennessee handily during the regular season, and their only loss came against UConn in the game immediately following the Tennessee-Stanford matchup. If there was ever such a thing as an 'excusable loss', that would be it. With a weak PAC-10 unlikely to challenge the she-tree and the ability to absorb another loss without losing ground to UT, Stanford should take one of the #1 seeds left. That leaves two spots with three teams in contention (Nebraska, Notre Dame, and Tennessee).
Undefeated = #1
Nebraska is a bit of a wild card. Thanks to the stellar play of Kelsey Griffin, Nebraska has a very comfortable lead in the Big 12. Their biggest remaining matchup comes on February 17th when Iowa State comes to town. They have a few decent pelts to their name (Oklahoma State and Baylor, in particular), but nothing of real pizazz in the closing weeks. Their RPI is below Tennessee's right now, indicating potential vulnerability in their strength of schedule. If they can go undefeated, they'll certainly grab a #1 seed, but running the table - even this late in the season - is no small feat. But however things go for them, they'll need to lose at least one more game than Tennessee to close the season or Tennessee won't pass them.
Fight, Irish, Fight!
The clear road to #1 for Tennessee is over the potential carcass of Notre Dame. Notre Dame is almost certain to lose their final game this year against UConn, but they do face a bit of a murderer's row prior to that matchup. Starting on Sunday, the Lady Irish play 16-8 DePaul, then #25 St. John's, then #16 Georgetown, then 14-9 Marquette before the breather against Seton Hall as a prelude to UConn. It's a fast, furious closeout to the season for Notre Dame, and ending with two losses is a very realistic (and probably the most likely) outcome.
So looking at the schedules, it appears that Tennessee would almost certainly get a #1 seed if they win out in the regular season. A loss would require two losses by Notre Dame for Tennessee to get a #1 seed, and would open up the possibility for conference tournament play to decide things.
The Tennessee Trail
Tennessee's own schedule does not end easily; dates with Ole Miss (twice), Florida, and Kentucky are all very losable games if the Lady Vols don't stay sharp. But those same games provide the opportunity for Tennessee to bolster their argument. Win out, and I really do think Tennessee will take a #1 seed. That would be a huge mark for a team that got bumped in the first round last year, and didn't even look good in the process.
It all starts Thursday night in Oxford, as the Lady Vols take on the Lady Rebels at 9 PM EST.