The Day Before finds the Vols back in Knoxville, having been eliminated in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament for the first time since 2007. And for the first time in Bruce Pearl's six year tenure, there is at least a shadow of doubt about whether or not the Vols will be dancing.
It's a very small shadow: on Saturday morning 84 of 85 projections in The Bracket Matrix have the Vols in. Most of our fears revolve around the way the selection committee has treated us the last two years: check out the comments on our Selection Sunday live threads from 2009 (where you can find me making the argument for us as a 5 seed ten minutes before we were given a 9) and 2010 (with the additional insult of Seth Davis immediately picking us to lose). In each of the last two years the Vols have been at least two lines lower than we - and most bracketologists - thought they would be.
Here's how the Vols' tournament resume looked heading into Selection Sunday the last three years:
- 2009: 21-12 (10-6) - RPI 25 - SOS 3 - 2-6 vs RPI Top 50 - 9 seed
- 2010: 25-8 (11-5) - RPI 14 - SOS 19 - 2-5 vs RPI Top 50 - 6 seed
- 2011: 19-14 (8-8) - RPI 31 - SOS 2 - 7-7 vs RPI top 50 - ? seed
The '09 resume really suffered because of the overall quality of the SEC. Last year Tennessee had home wins over the two best teams in the country, but our next five biggest wins were all against teams who finished between 53-61 in the RPI. On the other hand, only two of our eight losses were to teams outside the Top 100.
So with this year's team, what will stand out more to the selection committee: the seven wins vs. the RPI Top 50, or the fourteen losses overall?
Here's a complete breakdown of Tennessee's resume:
- Quality Wins (RPI Top 50): Missouri State (44), Villanova (35), at Pittsburgh (9), Memphis (33), Vanderbilt (25), at Georgia (43), at Vanderbilt (25)
- Quality Losses (RPI Top 50): Florida (8), at UConn (14), at Kentucky (10), at Florida (8), Georgia (43), Kentucky (10), Florida (8)
- Good Wins (RPI 51-100): Belmont (59), VCU (53), Belmont (59), at Ole Miss (81)
- "Good" Losses (RPI 51-100): Oakland (61), USC (69), Charleston (75), Alabama (77)
- Other Wins: 3 vs. RPI 101-150, 5 vs. RPI 150+
- Bad Losses: at Arkansas (123), Mississippi State (119)
- Horrible Losses: at Charlotte (226)
All of the top Big East teams have a boatload of RPI Top 50 wins. But outside the Big East, only seven teams have more RPI Top 50 wins than the Vols: Ohio State, BYU, and Florida each have ten, Kansas and Purdue have nine, and Kentucky and Texas have eight. Tennessee's overall strength of schedule trails only Georgetown.
With all of that quality, it seems impossible that the committee would leave Tennessee out despite our fourteen losses or our 12-14 record since the Pitt game. The lack of quality wins that could have hurt Tennessee on Selection Sunday the last two years will not be an issue this time around. So while it's true that seeing another two seed drop from what everyone expects could leave the Vols out of the tournament entirely (or playing in one of its First Four games), the abundance of quality wins suggests such a drop shouldn't happen this time around.
Chris Dobbertean's s-curve this morning has the Vols as the highest-ranked 9 seed, a projection the consensus at The Bracket Matrix agrees with. As others have noted, it almost seems fitting that such a roller coaster team plays in an 8/9 game. With 14 losses, I don't see how the Vols could possibly go any higher than 8, but I'd be very okay with being surprised in the other direction for a change (something we haven't seen since Pearl's first team earned a 2 seed in 2006).
If you're thinking about this Tennessee team making a deeper run, you'd also be okay with even an 11 seed, which would require a better effort in the first round but would keep the Vols away from any true juggernauts early. But to be fair, this Tennessee team hasn't earned the right for us to think about a deep run.
But just thinking about the opponent at hand - whoever it is - what this Tennessee team has done is show us that they're also capable of beating anyone in America. That being the case, I'll be glad just to see Tennessee's name anywhere in the field tomorrow...and then worry about finding a way to beat our first round opponent after that.
You will be able to make an argument that we deserve whatever seed we get, no matter how low. But we do deserve to be in. And once we're in, our fate is in our own hands...and we'll still be capable of beating anyone in the field.