Last week, we took a look at the women's bracket and the road to a number one NCAA tournament seed for the Lady Vols. Sitting at #5 in the polls with two losses, the Ladies clearly needed some help in the form of a loss by a team higher in the rankings. I'm not one to crow about earlier predictions, but I'm normally so bad at guessing basketball events that I do feel good about this one:
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.
The loss to St. John's did happen, as the Irish fell 76-71 on Tuesday. That loss was the second for the Irish this season (the first being to UConn) and, since Tennessee does not play another game before Monday's polls are released, the Lady Vols should climb up to number four in the rankings. Obviously, rankings do not guarantee the order of seeding in the tournament, but in this case, they do seem to be a good bellwether for distinguishing between two very good squads. Both UT and ND have strong closing schedules that will look terrific in the resumes if they win out, but Tennessee should have the upper hand. With Notre Dame likely to lose one more, Tennessee's fate is now in their own hands.
Why all the concern about #1?
Technically, there's really not a significant difference between being a number one or a number two seed in the women's tournament. After the top ten teams in any given year, there's usually a fairly substantial dropoff in play as the women's game is still trying to gain more popularity. In most years, simply getting one of those top eight seeds is sufficient, but this year has a destabilizing force: UConn.
UConn has taken the Tennessee 2007 route, bringing a very upperclassmen-laden team to the court - a team that has effectively played together for three consecutive years now. UConn recruits as well as Tennessee, and that experience is paying huge dividends. Like them or not, you have to respect what UConn is doing on the court this year.
UConn will take the top seed in the Dayton region. If Tennessee takes a number one seed, they will go through Memphis (with the opening weekend in Knoxville), and Nebraska and Stanford will likely lead the Kansas City and Sacramento regions, respectively. It's an arrangement that will give the Ladies a solid path to the Final Four. If, however, Tennessee takes the number two seed, there is a small chance that they get moved into the Dayton region. This is unlikely but not unrealistic. That would make a UT-UConn matchup happen in the Elite Eight, which would preferably be avoided; the more tournament games the Lady Vols can get under their belts, the better their chances against the Huskies.
The final three games of the season are all in Thompson-Boling Arena on the court named after the head coach. So far, the Ladies are undefeated at home and do seem to play better in front of their own fans. All three opponents are perfectly capable of beating the Lady Vols: LSU and Mississippi played Tennessee earlier in the season, and Kentucky is the second-best team in the conference right now. You have to like the Ladies' odds with the come court advantage and the indomitable presence of Cain, but the up-and-down levels of effort shown by the players over the last few weeks is certainly disconcerting.
Honestly, the SEC tournament won't do a whole lot for the Lady Vols in the NCAA seeding. If they win out in the regular season, only one tournament win would pretty well guarantee that Notre Dame can't skip back ahead of them. If they don't have the #1 seed by the end of the regular season, even winning the SEC is unlikely to make a huge difference. The top of this year's NCAA bracket will largely be decided by the regular season, with only the most spectacular swings in conference tournaments making any worthwhile difference.
But all in all, the real focus is to simply keep on winning and to find a way to put a complete game together. It's been a precious long time since the Lady Vols got an early jump on an opponent and kept their foot on the throttle. Whether they're a number one seed or not, Tennessee will need to show some killer instinct if they wish to make San Antonio.