As all the major conference tournaments get underway, Tennessee finds itself amongst a crowded field of teams trying to earn one of the so-called protected seeds in the NCAA Tournament. As previously discussed in this thread from Monday, that protection will extend to fewer teams in this year's bracket, as the San Jose and Spokane sites for first and second round games are of no real benefit to the vast majority of teams still in the hunt for a top four seed. If the Vols want to help their seed and avoid a trip to the west coast next week, they'll need to do a good job in the SEC Tournament.
For an event the Vols haven't won since 1979, success is always relative. Tennessee is currently listed as either a 4 or a 5 seed in most bracketology projections, and for the purpose of this exercise, we're assuming the window for the Vols is one spot north or south of there: if Tennessee loses to LSU today (or perhaps even to Ole Miss on Friday), a 6 seed is in play. And if the Vols win the SEC Tournament, a 3 seed is very much in play (and becomes the most probable outcome). If the Vols beat Kentucky and Vanderbilt back-to-back to win it, could Tennessee go as high as a 2? Well...
Here's a breakdown of the teams in the running for a top four protected seed, as a primer for who you need to cheer against this weekend:
Tier One: The Untouchables
Kansas, Kentucky, and Syracuse should be locks for number one seeds, even if they flame out in their opening game of their conference tournaments. Syracuse may have cast a little doubt on their lock status with the loss at Louisville last weekend, but since their first Big East Tournament game is against Georgetown, a loss there wouldn't be a total disappointment. Either way, Tennessee is obviously not breaking into this group.
Tier Two: The Final #1 Seed & The #2 Seed Contenders
There are seven teams that a significant number of bracket projections have as either the final #1 seed, or as a 2 seed. Two of these teams will have to settle for a #3 seed...RPI rankings are from Wednesday, opening tournament games are listed as follows:
- Duke (26-5, RPI 2) - vs. Boston College or Virginia
- Kansas State (23-6, RPI 6) - vs. Oklahoma State
- New Mexico (28-3, RPI 7) - vs. Air Force
- Ohio State (24-7, RPI 29) - vs. Michigan or Iowa
- Purdue (26-4, RPI 12) - vs. Northwestern or Indiana
- Villanova (24-6, RPI 9) - vs. Marquette
- West Virginia (24-6, RPI 5) - vs. Cincinnati
Could Tennessee sneak into this group? For the Vols to get a #2 seed, it would involve winning the SEC Tournament, and then bypassing two of these teams. The Vols currently have an RPI of 13, better than only Ohio State. New Mexico is the biggest wild card, who could finish anywhere from a 2 seed to a 5 seed depending on how the selection committee looks at them. So it's not totally impossible for Tennessee to get a two seed...it's just that, aside from that whole winning the SEC Tournament thing, the Vols are probably going to need an opening game upset or two to make it happen. The nature of the Big East Tournament means a loss by Nova probably wouldn't hurt them, because they'd be losing to another tournament team...and Duke, with an RPI of 2, has to be safe. But if one of the other teams goes down in their opening game, the window for a two seed could be open. Keep an eye on these openers today, but we'll worry about this more if the Vols make it to Sunday.
Tier Three: The Protected Seed Contenders
I think there's a clear separation between the seven teams in tier two, and the twelve teams listed here. All told, we have 22 teams in play for 16 top four seeds, and the 12 teams in play in this tier would be vying for the final two #3 seeds, and all four #4 seeds.
This group comprises Tennessee's most direct competition for seeding, which means you need to pull for all of these teams to lose (except us, of course):
- Baylor (23-6, RPI 8)
- Butler (28-4, RPI 14)
- BYU (27-4, RPI 23)
- Georgetown (20-9, RPI 16)
- Maryland (22-7, RPI 19)
- Michigan State (24-7, RPI 24)
- Pittsburgh (24-7, RPI 10)
- Temple (26-5, RPI 14)
- Tennessee (23-7, RPI 13)
- Texas A&M (21-8, RPI 11)
- Vanderbilt (22-7, RPI 22)
- Wisconsin (23-7, RPI 17)
What's a good weekend for Tennessee in Nashville? The Vols need to beat LSU and Ole Miss, and then if it's Kentucky on Saturday, put up a good fight. Obviously if it comes to that, we'll want to beat the Cats and move forward...but for Tennessee to land on the 4 line, I think they need to get to Saturday.
From there, some of what happens will depend on what these other teams do. Any team from this group that wins its conference tournament, with the possible exception of Butler and BYU, is going to secure a 4 seed easily, if not a 3. And likewise, any team from this group that flames out early this weekend could find themselves looking at a 5; two teams from this group are going to end up with a 6.
Who's going to end up where? That's anybody's guess. But the Vols have played their way into good company...this weekend, they can separate themselves even further with a good showing.
That starts by facing an LSU team that's 11-19, 2-14 in the SEC, and a robust 222 in the RPI...and starts by taking care of business the way this Tennessee team should.