Tennessee Bracket Math 2013

USA TODAY Sports

We look at the history of bubble teams, RPI, and try to project what it will take for the Vols to get in this year.

First thing's first: every year is different on the bubble, and at this point for Tennessee the only guarantee is to win the SEC Tournament. There is no way to project how many teams will steal bids during championship week, and as Ole Miss proved in their loss to Mississippi State on Saturday, there are no certainties in March. So while Tennessee basically held serve despite the loss to Georgia because everyone else suffered more last Saturday, and while the Vols may be "in" depending on who you ask, there's still a lot of work to do and more change will come.

From there we can say a couple things with strong conviction. First, the Vols have to win at Auburn tomorrow night. The Tigers are 227 in RPI, just two spots ahead of the worst team in the league from Starkville. Auburn is 9-20 overall, 3-13 in the SEC. They did beat both LSU and Alabama on The Plains and held Alabama to 37 points in doing so, but have since lost seven in a row, all by 7+ points with an average margin of 17. Losing to Auburn would give Tennessee its worst lost of the year, crush our RPI, and all but assure we had to win the SEC Tournament to get in.

Beating Missouri in Knoxville is also very important. A loss to the Tigers wouldn't be as soul-crushing, but a home loss to a team that isn't ridiculously far ahead of us in RPI (33 as of Tuesday morning) would knock our RPI back into the 60s and, perhaps more importantly, derail our late-season momentum, which right now is Tennessee's best argument. If the Vols win out this week and close with an identical 8-1 run from last year (with far more quality wins this time around), it will be very hard for the committee to say the Vols aren't one of the best 34 at-large teams right now.

Don't look for UT's RPI to leap if we do win out this week; beating Auburn on the road and Missouri at home is essentially a wash. RPIForecast.com, the site we use for all projections, puts the Vols at 54 if we win out, up just two spots. It's not a terrible number, but probably one that needs some additional work in the SEC Tournament.

The Vols would finish 7th in the league if the tournament started today, but thankfully, it does not. We need Missouri to beat Arkansas in Columbia tonight, which should happen with a great home team against a team whose only road win came at Auburn. That would get the Vols back in front of the Razorbacks, who own the tiebreaker via head-to-head. Tennessee could then pass Missouri as well with a win on Saturday. If Missouri wins tonight, winning out puts the Vols no worse than fifth.

Tennessee could also pass the loser of Wednesday's Alabama-Ole Miss game if they lose their season finale (Alabama is home vs Georgia, Ole Miss is at LSU). And the Vols could still pass Kentucky if the Cats lose out (at Georgia, vs Florida). So winning out puts Tennessee anywhere from third to sixth (probably fifth unless Arkansas wins out) in the league; the coveted double-bye in the SEC Tournament is still on the table.

If the Vols do finish fifth and have to play on Thursday, they would get the winner of a Wednesday game between teams 12 & 13 in the standings. There is a clearly defined bottom in this league: Auburn, Mississippi State, and South Carolina are all 3-13, and finishing fifth ensures you play one of those teams on Thursday. This is why you don't want to finish sixth: the 11th place team also plays on Thursday, and right now that's a race between Georgia, LSU, Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M. That's an extra burden I'd rather not carry, and again, if we win out and Arkansas loses one game (at Missouri, Texas A&M), it's off the table for us. Cannot stress this enough: it's very important that Missouri beats Arkansas tonight.

If we do finish fifth or sixth, it will be incredibly important to win that Thursday game. We don't have to look any further than last year for this lesson: an 8-1 finish gets instantly derailed if you lose to a non-tournament team in your first game in the SEC Tournament. Any Thursday action would be us against a lesser opponent; RPI Forecast projects us to have an RPI of 68 with a first round loss. Since the formula changed in 2004-05 to adjust for home/road/neutral games, no team has been selected as an at-large entry with an RPI worse than 67.

If we survive Thursday, it's likely to put us in what many pundits will call a bubble elimination game on Friday against Alabama, Kentucky, or Ole Miss, though Missouri could also be an option again and the Tigers should be in by that point. It doesn't always work that way: a few years ago Alabama beat Georgia in the final week of the regular season, then beat them again in the SEC Tournament, but the committee still took the Dawgs and left the Tide out to dry. But we'd rather just make things easier on ourselves; I for one would love another crack at Ole Miss.

So while there are still no certainties in this thing, if you asked us, "What do you think Tennessee has to do to get in?", the best answer seems to be, "win out, then get to Saturday in Nashville." Winning out and losing on Friday would make us all very nervous, but we'd still be watching on Selection Sunday with extreme interest. Losing to Missouri and then getting to Saturday might create the same dynamic. But our safest bet is, you know, just win. And that has to start with Auburn.

In terms of RPI, here's at the last teams in and the first teams out over the last few years. Last at-large refers to worst RPI, not lowest seed in the tournament:

2012

  • Last at-large: Virginia (53)
  • Highest left-out: Marshall (44)
  • Highest major left out: West Virginia (57)
2011
  • Last at-large: USC (67)
  • Highest left-out: Harvard (35)
  • Highest major left out: Boston College (58)
2010
  • Last at-large: Minnesota (62)
  • Highest left-out: Rhode Island (40)
  • Highest major left out: Mississippi State (55)
2009
  • Last at-large: Arizona (62)
  • Highest left-out: San Diego State (34)
  • Highest major left out: Florida (54)
2008
  • Last at-large: Oregon (61)
  • Highest left-out: Dayton (30)
  • Highest major left out: Ole Miss (39)
2007
  • Last at-large: Stanford (67)
  • Highest left-out: Air Force (29)
  • Highest major left out: Florida State (41)
2006
  • Last at-large: Seton Hall (58)
  • Highest left-out: Hofstra (22)
  • Highest major left out: Cincinnati (40)
A more detailed look among major conference at-large teams with RPI 40-69:

2012 IN: 43 Cincinnati, 47 Purdue, 49 Kansas State, 50 NC State, 51 Texas, 52 South Florida, 53 Virginia
2012 OUT: 57 West Virginia, 60 Miami, 61 Ole Miss, 63 Oregon, 65 Northwestern, 68 Seton Hall

2011 IN: 44 UCLA, 45 Michigan State, 47 Georgia, 48 Illinois, 52 Michigan, 55 Florida State, 57 Clemson, 64 Marquette, 67 USC
2011 OUT: 58 Boston College, 61 Oklahoma State, 62 Virginia Tech, 65 Colorado

2010 IN: 42 Florida State, 44 Missouri, 49 Notre Dame, 50 Marquette, 56 Florida, 62 Minnesota
2010 OUT: 55 Mississippi State, 59 Virginia Tech, 60 Seton Hall, 61 Ole Miss, 63 Arizona State, 64 UConn, 65 Cincinnati

2009 IN: 41 Texas, 42 Minnesota, 44 Michigan, 45 Wisconsin, 55 Maryland, 60 Boston College, 62 Arizona
2009 OUT: 54 Florida, 56 Baylor, 57 South Carolina, 58 Georgetown, 61 Virginia Tech, 64 Auburn, 65 Miami

2008 IN: 42 Purdue, 43 Villanova, 44 Arizona, 47 Kansas State, 49 Baylor, 58 Kentucky, 61 Oregon
2008 OUT: 46 Ohio State, 53 Virginia Tech, 55 Florida, 56 Syracuse, 59 Florida State, 68 Georgia Tech, 69 Texas Tech (Ole Miss also out at 39, the only major conference team to be left out with an RPI better than 40 since the formula changed)

2007 IN: 40 USC, 44 Purdue, 47 Vanderbilt, 52 Georgia Tech, 53 Texas Tech, 55 Virginia
2007 OUT: 41 Florida State, 46 Clemson, 48 Alabama, 50 Syracuse, 51 Oklahoma State, 54 Michigan, 56 Kansas State, 57 West Virginia, 58 Georgia, 59 Ole Miss, 64 Mississippi State

2006 IN: 42 Arkansas, 44 Kentucky, 45 Texas A&M, 50 NC State, 55 California, 57 Alabama, 58 Seton Hall
2006 OUT: 40 Cincinnati, 47 Michigan, 51 Maryland, 59 Colorado, 64 South Carolina, 65 Florida State

So, in summary since 2006 among major conference at-large contenders:

  • 80.6% make the field with RPI 40-49 (25 of 31); 100% have made the field since expansion to 68
  • 46.1% make the field with RPI 50-59 (18 of 39); 77.7% (7 of 9) have made the field since expansion to 68
  • 22.2% make the field with RPI 60-69 (6 of 27); 20% (2 of 10) have made the field since expansion to 68
RPI Forecast's SEC Tournament projections have the Vols with an RPI of 59 with a 20-12 finish, which can only be achieved by winning out and going 1-1 in the SEC Tournament. That's clearly in the danger zone, and that's what we'd like to avoid. But 21-12 projects an RPI of 48, and as you can see, historically that's a number you can feel pretty good about.

Also, remember we're in much better shape than last year. The Vols were 17-13 going to the SEC Tournament with no wins as good as ours over Florida this year, and the loss to Ole Miss dropped us to 86 in RPI, well out of the conversation despite our one seed in the NIT. SEC Tournament games are worth more than home wins/road losses because they're played on a neutral floor, so you can see significant late-season movement there. The best thing Tennessee can do is to keep winning this week, stay in the national conversation where they are right now squarely among the last four in/first four out group, and then take that momentum to Nashville and win enough to advance. The bubble is always subject to change based on bid stealers in other conference tournaments and, as we saw Saturday, how many other bubble teams lose. Specifically, you want to cheer against St. Mary's, Temple, La Salle, Virginia, Iowa State, Kentucky, Boise State, Villanova, Ole Miss, Baylor, Alabama, Iowa, Arizona State, Maryland, and anyone else in our neighborhood in anyone's bracket.. All we can control is what's in front of us and keep playing the good basketball that got us here in the first place.

So, all of that to say: Beat Auburn.
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