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Anticipating the NCAA Tournament: Lady Vols' Bracket Possibilities

With only 2 regular season games to go, the bracket is beginning to come into focus for the Lady Vols.  At 8 regular-season losses, they are nearly certain to have a lower bracket seeding than any other team in their history (#3 seed).  After you let that whole "never been lower than #3" thing sink in, let's take a look at the projections for the Lady Vols and how the remaining regular season and SEC tournament games might affect things.

Most of the regular news outlets are still in minimal-coverage mode for women's basketball, so the best starting point for this discussion comes from ESPN, who provides one of those predictive bracketology thingies that everybody loves to hate.  As of the time I write this (early afternoon on Tuesday), the Lady Vols are tagged as a #6 seed.    The seeding picture in that vicinity looks like this:

#4 Seeds

  • Ohio State (22-5)
  • Kansas State (21-4)
  • Pittsburgh (19-5)
  • Xavier (24-4)

#5 Seeds

  • Florida (23-5)
  • Vanderbilt (21-7)
  • Arizona State (20-6)
  • Texas (19-7)

#6 Seeds

  • South Dakota State (26-2)
  • Virginia (21-7)
  • Tennessee (19-8)
  • Iowa State (18-7)

#7 Seeds

  • Michigan State (19-8)
  • DePaul (20-7)
  • Purdue (19-8)
  • Notre Dame (18-7)

#8 Seeds

  • Middle Tennessee State (23-5)
  • Iowa (18-9)
  • Utah (17-7)
  • Minnesota (18-8)

Currently, the 20-win mark is roughly the divider between the #6 and #7 seeds.  Texas has 19 wins at a #5, but has some marquee wins, including a decisive one over Tennessee.  Tennessee is the other team with fewer than 20 wins and better than #7, but the other 20-win candidate (DePaul) lost decisively to Tennessee.  So, by win mark, the #6 seed makes sense at the moment.

Looking a little further, let's try bumping Tennessee up and down a bit to see what the obstacles are.  Looking upward, UT has a lot of experience with the #5 seeds - and none of it is good.  They lost to Florida (66-57), Vanderbilt (74-58) and Texas (73-59), so displacing any of those teams would require substantial justification.  UT can help their cause this Sunday when they host Vanderbilt, but outside the benefit of the win itself, that's the only #5 seed they can earn a direct, favorable comparison against.

Oddly, the comparison to the #4s is a little easier on the eyes.  UT doesn't have any head-to-head against Pitt, OSU, Kansas State or Xavier, but they do have a phenomenal RPI on their side (#8).  If any of the #4 seeds drop a couple games without a serious run in their tournament, they may be susceptible to falling past the #5 seeds and letting UT bump up a little.

On the downward end, Tennessee is relatively comfortable compared to the #7 seeds.  They already beat DePaul decisively (88-67), and have enormous schedule advantages over the others.  Barring a collapse from here on out, it will be difficult for Tennessee to slide beyond the #7 seeds.

So right now, the Lady Vols sit at a point of relative stability in the seedings; there's quite a bit of work involved to rise in the rankings, but it doesn't take much to stay ahead of the lower seeds.  It certainly appears that the prediction of a #6 seed is reasonable, and that something from 5 to 7 is the most likely.

How they can change their seeding:

Beyond the obvious, "keep winning" or "keep losing" arguments, here are a few things that are particularly noteworthy:

  • SEC play really matters.  UT still plays one of their closest seeding competitors - Vandy - to end the regular season.  They also play an LSU squad who rests on the tournament bubble, and a win would help hide the smudges against Florida and Kentucky.  Lastly, they may get a shot at Florida in the EC tournament; beat Florida, and they atone for another head-to-head mark.  Heck, simply go deeper in the tournament and they may overcome the H2H.
  • SEC seeding is still in play.  It's a long shot, but they can still win the East if Florida loses to Georgia and the Lady Vols win their final two.  That seeding would be particularly good to have, as they could avoid Auburn until the potential final round.  With the bye, they would really only need one SEC win to make a compelling case for some extra seeding love.
  • Most influential "other" conference - the Big 12.  The Big 12 has 5 teams at or above UT's projected seeding (#6 Iowa State, #5 Texas, #4 Kansas State, and #3's Baylor and Texas A&M).  That's a lot of teams, and there will undoubtedly be a few games between them to close the season and in their conference tournament.  Losses against quality teams don't bump you down much, but it just might be enough to let the Lady Vols sneak up a bit.  (Yes, Oklahoma is up at a #1 seed, but there's no realistic way to pass them up.)
  • Dream Case:  Assembling the pieces, and the best thing that could happen would be for the Lady Vols to win out the regular sesaon (duh), and win the SEC tourney (duh, but wait for the specific conditions) with wins against Florida and Auburn.  Such a run would erase a lot of doubts about the team as well as a lot of former losses in the schedule.  If that were to happen, they would most likely end with a #4 seed, and would be very close to leaning into a #3.  Add in a few key twists in other conferences - especially the Big 12 and the ACC - and the absolute upper limit is still a #3 seed.
  • Nightmare:  The worst is to obviously lose the next two and drop the opening game in the SEC tournament.  Added to that, some solid wins by a few teams not mentioned here (the 8-10 seeds) could place the Lady Vols into the dreaded #8/#9 category.  Not that they wouldn't deserve it at that point, but still...

So as always, hope for more wins, but know that they are most likely destined for a 6ish seed and need a lot of help to move upward.