Pre-Conference Play Bracket Roundup

Will we see more orange in March? - Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Going into SEC play, where do the experts have Tennessee, and where will the Vols have opportunities to rise and fall?

With the vast majority of non-conference play behind us (and all of non-conference play behind Tennessee), it's time to take stock of where things stand relative to March. Has Tennessee done enough in non-conference play to be part of the 2013 NCAA Tournament field? If so, what to do they need to do to stay there? If not, what do they need to do to break into the field of 68?

Fortunately, this is the time of year that everyone starts making brackets, so it's easy to get a sense of the lay of the land. Here I'll focus on the big names--ESPN's Joe Lunardi and SI's Andy Glockner, both of whom updated their brackets this morning--as well as the fantastic compilation of anyone and everyone at the Bracket Project. (Jerry Palm at CBS would be included, but his bracket is well out-of-date). Additionally, since I've heard that the best way to get a sense of where things stand is to actually make a bracket of your own, I'll close with my own attempt, which you may feel free to applaud or heckle as your fancy dictates. Making a bracket is a lot harder than it looks, but it does give a fantastic sense of the quality (or lack thereof) of the bubble teams. But more on that later, first the professionals.

Tennessee is off Joe Lunardi's radar, failing to make the bracket and failing to make either the "First Four Out" or the "Next Four Out" lists. The SEC, however, does get four teams in the field, with Florida and Missouri netting 3-seeds, Kentucky garnering a #7, and Ole Miss making a First Four game with the final 12-seed on the line. Tennessee has six games remaining against these four teams, starting with Ole Miss coming to Knoxville tomorrow night for a battle of bubble teams. The Vols have home-and-homes with Ole Miss and Kentucky and host Florida and Missouri in the last two weeks of the season.

Additionally, six of Tennessee's past opponents make Lunardi's bracket, with the Vols best scalp in Wichita State leading the way with a 6-seed. Georgetown and Virginia, who victimized the Vols in quick succession after Thanksgiving, garnered a 6-seed and a 10-seed. Oklahoma State, who smothered Tennessee in Maui, got an 8-seed, and Memphis, who won in Thompson-Boling Arena Friday night, managed an 11-seed. Additionally, Lunardi projects UNC-Asheville to win the Big South auto-bid and a 15-seed.

Andy Glockner, on the other hand, puts Tennessee in Dayton fighting Iowa State for the right to enter the tournament as a 12-seed. He also has four SEC teams in the field, with Florida a 3-seed, Missouri a #4, Kentucky a #10, and Ole Miss off his radar entirely.

In his bracket, just five former Tennessee opponents show up, with Wichita State and Georgetown managing 5-seeds, Oklahoma State again getting a #8, Memphis joining Tennessee in Dayton to battle for a 12-seed against Indiana State, and UNC-Asheville with an auto-bid and a play-in game for a 16-seed.

The Bracket Project combines basically everyone who's put a bracket online into their Bracket Matrix, which averages everyone's projections and gives a unified projection. This is usually partially out-of-date, since the brackets it includes are updated at different times, but it's a useful tool for finding the consensus.

The Bracket Matrix joins Glockner in putting Tennessee in Dayton to fight for a 12-seed. However, it has room for five SEC teams, with Florida and Missouri getting #3s, Kentucky a #8, and Ole Miss joining Tennessee in Dayton to fight for a #12.

The Bracket Matrix also has five past Vols opponents in the bracket, with 6-seeds for Wichita State and Georgetown, a #7 for Oklahoma State, an 11-seed for Memphis, and a play-in for a #16 for UNC-Asheville.

Clearly, the consensus shows Tennessee right on the bubble, but most seem to expect the SEC to get four teams into the tournament, so the Vols' fate will likely be determined by their ability or lack thereof to stay ahead of the upper-middle of the conference. A sweep of Ole Miss would be huge, and the four games against Arkansas, Alabama, and LSU will be important chances to stay ahead of the pack. Additionally, Tennessee will have four chances--three at home!--for quality wins against consensus tournament teams in Missouri, Florida, and Kentucky, and will need to do their best to avoid bad losses against the dregs of the conference, which are extensive. The Vols' first six SEC games include two matchups each with Ole Miss and Alabama and a trip to Rupp Arena, so we'll find out quickly whether they look up for the task.

Finally, Tennessee should hope Wichita State continues showing well to make UT's December win as eye-catching as possible. An A-10 run from Xavier or UMass (or both) would also strengthen the non-conference profile, and Tennessee should hope Oklahoma State, Georgetown, Virginia, and Memphis avoid doing anything more than they've already done to make those losses pop out as embarrassing.

As I said earlier, it's enlightening to make your own bracket, and the resume comparison tool at CBSSports.com is a huge help. Mine may not be accurate, as the committee members may not be looking at exactly the same things I was, but I have a sense of what resumes correspond to what place in the pecking order. So here's my bracket, with comments and comparisons at the end.

1: Duke, Louisville, Michigan, Arizona

2: Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Gonzaga

3: Syracuse, Missouri, Illinois, Florida

4: Butler, NC State, Notre Dame, Creighton

5: Wichita State, Kansas State, Michigan State, Georgetown

6: New Mexico, San Diego State, UCLA, VCU

7: Miami, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, Oregon

8: UNLV, Ohio State, Wyoming, Colorado

9: Temple, Marquette, Baylor, Kentucky

10: Maryland, Boise State, Memphis, Virginia

11: Tennessee, St. Louis, North Carolina, Indiana State

12: Wisconsin/Arizona State, Oklahoma/Colorado State, Belmont, Stephen F. Austin

13: Bucknell, MTSU, Harvard, Louisiana Tech

14: College of Charleston, Detroit, Canisius, Akron

15: North Dakota State, Florida Gulf Coast, Weber St, Vermont

16: Cal Poly, Wagner, Northeastern/NCCU, Southern/UNC-Asheville

First Four Out: Ole Miss, Iowa, Iowa State, Pittsburgh

  • A note on methodology, I almost completely ignored RPI. I don't have much use for RPI at the end of the season, and I find it even more misleading here. Of course, the resume comparison splits wins by RPI, but once you've compared 80 teams, you look more at the team name and not the number next to them. Ignoring RPI is probably not what the committee will do, even if they should.
  • This is a right now bracket. I'm not trying to project the rest of the season. I'm not sure how this meshes with Lunardi and Glockner's philosophies, although I found myself agreeing more often with Glockner. Also, I don't do this for a living, so there's a lot of looking at resumes and not as much eye test. I don't watch enough games.
  • Virginia is 0-3 against teams from the Colonial, including a loss to an abysmal Old Dominion, and their RPI is awful. But lots of teams near the bottom of the bracket have bad losses, and UVA is 3-0 against fellow bubble teams, so I made them a 10-seed, even though most brackets don't include them at all. The ten line is about the point where you begin to see a mishmash of 25 teams with mediocre resumes, and it's about figuring out the proper balance of good wins, lack of bad losses, and overall record. But there are teams I have at #10 or #11 who don't make most brackets and teams in most brackets that don't even make my First Four Out. It's a mess.
  • I can't think of a good reason why almost every bracket has North Carolina ahead of Tennessee. And reputation and RPI don't count as good reasons. The RPI would rather lose by 30 to Indiana than by one to Georgetown. I wouldn't. If I'm being a homer here, people can call me out on it, but it looks to me like Tennessee, who isn't even on some radars, has done just as much as (or more than) UNC, who is in almost every bracket. Either people are relying too heavily on reputation or RPI, or they're doing a lot of projection, the latter of which I admittedly can't fault too much. UNC will have more opportunities to pick up quality wins in the ACC (although not many more--the ACC is also down), and Tennessee's lack of offense is bound to cause a bad loss or two. Although UNC's inability to do anything remotely resembling playing defense might do the same.
  • I can make that complaint about a number of teams, I just used UNC because I've seen them play so often. Colorado State's marquee win is over Washington and they have a loss to Illinois-Chicago, yet a number of folks think they should be a single-digit seed. UNLV's best win is over a bubble team, and their average projection in the Bracket Matrix is a 5-seed. I don't get it.
  • As with BlogPoll ballots, tell me if I'm an idiot.

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