The End Game

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Fleshing out the possibilities for the Lady Vols and the SEC women's basketball teams as the season draws to a close.

Thanks to a survival win over Arkansas and two "that coulda been us" losses by Kentucky and Texas A&M on Sunday, Tennessee now stands as, at a minimum, an SEC season co-champion. The worst possible scenario - two losses against those same A&M and 'Tucky teams would set up a potential 3- or 4-way tie, depending on Georgia's finish. But still, we can start to look forward now and see how things may play out.

It's obvious to everybody now: one more win and Tennessee owns the SEC season outright. With A&M coming to town on Thursday, that game should be the best opportunity as the roadie to Kentucky is not an easy one. Lose both, and Tennessee is in a tiebreaker, and the only team the Lady Vols would fare well against in that situation is Georgia, meaning UT could drop to a 3 (or possibly even a 4) in the SEC tournament seeding.

But no matter what happens now, Tennessee is no worse than fourth and will get to sit and relax until the first two "rounds" are finished. (The first round is hardly a round: only the 12/13 game, as Ole Miss has self-imposed a postseason ban for recruiting violations, thereby nullifying the 11/14 game.) And to be perfectly honest, there's not a lot of difference in being 1 through 4 this year, as far as the tournament goes.

There are, however, a lot of things that can be set in motion for the NCAA tournament, depending on how the final two games shake out.

Scenario #1: Tennessee wins out

Winning out simplifies everything for Tennessee. They'd be a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their region would depend on a few other teams, but they're probably looking at Spokane with Stanford as the #1. That's ... not bad, as far as #1 seeds go. I probably like UT's chances against Stanford more than any other #1, but that's not saying I'd think they would win.

Tennessee winning, however, makes a total mess of the rest of the SEC teams. Here's where things get fun. To the bullet points:

  • There would be a possibility of four SEC teams eligible for a 3 seed. Even with losses to Tennessee, both A&M and Kentucky could hold 3 seeds, especially if they do well in the SEC tournament. Add Georgia and South Carolina to that list, and if a couple teams like Maryland and Dayton fall through, you could see SEC teams a 9-12 in the polls and RPI, along with solid strengths of schedule and a few quality wins apiece. None of these teams would qualify for a 2 seed, but there's no way all four can be #3s: that would pit one against Tennessee, which is verboten by women's tournament seeding rules.
    So it's very unlikely, but you could have a #3 seed-worthy SEC team forced down to a #4 seed and a Sweet Sixteen matchup against a #1 seed. Hilarity ensues.
  • At any rate, there would be a mad scramble to avoid the 4/5 line. This year has 4 teams who are clearly above the rest; avoiding them as long as possible is a really good idea. This being the case, you may have 4 SEC teams with very strong interests in winning the SEC tournament simply to get a #3 seed.
  • There are almost certainly going to be tiebreakers needed to seed the SEC tournament. Too many scenarios end in tied upper teams. Along with NCAA concerns, a lost tiebreaker could move a team to #5, which costs them a bye in the SEC tournament. So if Tennessee wins on Thursday, their Sunday will only be for bragging rights over the Wildcats, but many other teams will have more than a win at stake.

Scenario #2: Tennessee wins one

Winning one still keeps Tennessee atop the SEC outright, but it puts them at risk of dropping to a 3 (but not to a 4, which is extremely important). They would fall below Maryland and be #9 in the polls but would probably stay ahead of them in RPI. But at six losses, they'd still likely drop to a 3, especially now that Missouri is >100 in RPI and considered a "bad" loss (ya think?). Nevertheless, many of the above scenarios would still be in play for the other upper SEC teams.

So which would be the better loss to have (ugh)? Probably Kentucky. For one, it'd be really nice to win the SEC on Thursday and end the drama. It'd be nicer to win it outright at home, and on Kamiko's and Taber's Senior Day. And if Tennessee wins the SEC outright, even a loss to Kentucky in Lexington wouldn't cause the selection committee to favor the Wildcats over Tennessee, so there would not be a whole lot at stake on Sunday anyhow, outside the usual desire to win.

But if Tennessee does drop only one, you would probably see Maryland pick up that last 2 seed, which would cause even more fits in seeding the NCAA tournament. You'd have 5 SEC teams along the 3/4 line, and the bottom 2 would be 4 seeds. Again, ugh.

Scenario #3: Tennessee loses two

Let's just say that this would put Tennessee at risk of a 4 seed and leave it at that. This would be a very bad thing.

Outside the top 5 SEC teams

LSU and Vanderbilt are pretty much guaranteed to make the field, bringing the SEC to 7. Arkansas has a chance, but has to win out to convince the voters. Florida also has an outside shot, but would have to win out and make noise in the SEC tournament, and may need help beyond that.

Bracketology

If you're not used to women's tournament seeding, know this: it is not like seeding the men's tournament. It's close, but there are some key differences:

  • Teams that host sub-regionals have to be placed in their home site, no matter the seed. This is to encourage attendance, which is more of an issue with women's ball then with the men.
  • Teams may be shifted along the "S-curve" to avoid having two conference teams in the same sub-regional, and to ensure that all hosts can stay at home. They also try to avoid repeating matchups from the prior year's tournament, but this is a guideline and not a rule.
  • Add the two previous rules, and you sometimes get #1 seed playing opening weekend games against a true home opponent.

Charlie Creme of ESPN does an absolutely fantastic job explaining all that: go here and read if you're interested.

Tennessee hosts a regional this year, so we'll have some games in TBA. They're a lot of fun; if you're around I highly encourage it. If Tennessee is a 2 seed, most likely they'll be in Stanford's bracket, as stated above and as noted in Creme's latest analysis. If they fall to a 3 seed, then it's anybody's guess where they go.

As far as 2/3 goes, it's surprisingly a big deal this year. As a 3 seed, Tennessee could see Duke, Penn State, Cal, or Maryland as 2 seeds. As a 2 seed, the Lady Vols might draw Maryland, Dayton, North Carolina, or Louisville. That's a pretty big difference, Maryland notwithstanding. Creme suggests Maryland right now; I tend to think it'd be Dayton in Spokane, but that's very open to possibility.

In short, beat A&M.

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