In what has been one of the wildest seasons in Lady Vols history, there is plenty of excitement left to come. Despite a 20-9 overall record (and 9-5 in the SEC), there are a lot of high points in the resume that may help the Lady Vols get a higher seed in the NCAA tournament. For example, there is the thrilling overtime win against second-ranked Stanford in Knoxville. There is the 13-2 home record, which includes an undefeated home stand against the SEC. We've focused largely on the subpar performance this year, but it's also fair to point out the bright spots.
The SEC tournament is ideally set up to be another bright spot as well. While earning the first-round bye would have been the preferred choice, Alabama is a team that Tennessee matches up well against. If the Lady Vols come into this game focused, they should earn a very important conference win - something the freshmen will want to have prior to the NCAA's.
Beat Alabama, and the second-round team is Florida. If you don't recall, Florida beat Tennessee 66-57 back on February 8th in Gainesville. Florida is also a team in the same general region of seeding as Tennessee in most bracket projections. Due to the higher conference standing in the regular season and the head-to-head win, Florida is projected to be seeded slightly above Tennessee. However, beating Florida would remove that advantage; additionally, this win would give UT two conference wins while leaving Florida with zero. That may indeed be enough to flip UT above Florida.
Florida will be a very tough matchup, though; the Gators are a veteran-laden team with only 2 sophomores and 4 freshmen to their name (including the practice squad). They know they can beat Tennessee and they can spend the week assuming that UT will be their opponent in the second round. They are not as talented as UT, but they have played better as a team this season. UT absolutely needs to find a way to limit the mistakes in this one.
If the Lady Vols beat Florida, I would expect them to be a #6 seed.
If we look beyond Florida (and admittedly, projecting this deep into a tournament is mostly guesswork), UT would then mostly likely face top-seeded Auburn. Auburn is yet another team ahead of Tennessee, although Tennessee cannot realistically overtake them in NCAA seeding considerations. While Auburn may be playing for a shot at a #1 seed, Tennessee could avenge yet another regular season loss and really make a statement about their preparedness for the NCAA tournament. After all, the biggest knock on the Ladies is that they have been inconsistent and slow-starting due to their youth. To get this far in the tournament, those arguments would be seriously weakened and the late-season surge would carry considerable weight.
The Auburn Tigers are just as experienced as Florida and are relishing their first regular-season win in 20 years. At the moment, they are likely looking at a #2 seed because they are not as well known and because they had an easier schedule than some of the teams around them. A good run in the tournament would go a long way toward erasing those arguments and might sway enough opinions to get them to a #1 seed, and beating Tennessee would be an ideal piece to that puzzle. Much like the Florida game, UT will have to play consistently well, but Auburn is not as deep as Florida; UT may be able to wear them down. A win here would be two quality wins in as many days, which would be a huge argument in their favor during the selection process.
If the Lady Vols beat Auburn, I would expect a #5 seed, though a 6 is still realistic.
Beating Auburn would, of course, put the Lady Vols in the SECCG. It's anybody's guess who they'd face, but you have to expect the opposition to be either Vanderbilt or LSU. The Lady Vols split the series with Vandy; winning would give them the neutral-court win and yet one more argument to be placed above a similarly-seeded team. LSU would also be a handy matchup; after one of their more horrific first halves, the Lady Vols barely lost to LSU last week. Again, the neutral-court win would obscure LSU's argument over Tennessee.
Winning the SEC tournament would nearly guarantee a #5 seed, though a #4 seed is probably out of reach.
It's all projection and guesswork, but the SEC tournament is nicely lined up to give UT a shot at redemption against many teams, as well as a chance to completely rewrite the arguments against them in the NCAA selection process. Above all else, they need to reach the #6 seed to avoid the opening weekend matchup against a #1 or a #2 team. Worse case: if they lose to Alabama, the Lady Vols are likely looking at a #8 or #9, which would earn them a shot at a team like UConn or Maryland. As much fun as it would be to beat UConn, I have no desire to give them a chance to beat UT on the first weekend of the tournament. UT has always been in the Sweet Sixteen, and I don't want to see that streak end this year - especially to that team.