By now, we should've realized that what a team does is only a part of the equation that sends them dancing or relegates them to the NIT. After a loss to Georgia last weekend, immediate consensus was that the Vols were sunk. Until Kentucky was handled in Fayetteville. And Iowa State was destroyed in Norman. And Virginia dropped a nail-biter to Boston College. By the end of the day, Tennessee--despite the loss--was in just as good a position as when they started.
It happened again before the Missouri game this Saturday. If Tennessee won, they were a tournament team. But before Tennessee even took the floor, Kentucky got a huge home win that vaulted them ahead of the Vols. Later Boise State would defeat San Diego State, and the following day saw Temple and Virginia make their cases by knocking off VCU and Maryland. Even teams as far back as Baylor made statements, with the Bears picking up a 23-point win over Kansas.
The lesson is that it's not whether you win or lose, it's about whether you win or lose more than the teams around you. This week, Vols fans will be treated to a host of speculation about what it will take to make the tournament. But absent an automatic bid, the real test will be how the Vols perform compared to their bubble brethren.
I've been told that, in order to understand why one can't look at resumes in isolation and to piece together how each fits into the puzzle, it's instructive to make your own field of 68. With the help of CBS' fantastic Resume Comparison tool, I have done just that. I will list my own results, as well as Tennessee's placement in a number of leading brackets. For those who like to get to the nitty gritty and don't want to read two thousand words, I'll close with a list of games that Vols fans should pay the closest attention to as tournament play ramps up this week, grouped by vital importance and less vital importance. You can skip there.
My own results, mostly from just staring at resumes, not taking recency into account (at least not much):
1: Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Gonzaga
2: Georgetown, Michigan, Louisville, Michigan State,
3: New Mexico, Miami, Florida, Ohio State
4: Kansas State, Arizona, Saint Louis, Marquette
5: Oklahoma State, Wisconsin, UNLV, Syracuse
6: Pittsburgh, Colorado State, VCU, Butler
7: San Diego State, UNC, Notre Dame, UCLA
8: NC State, Minnesota, Missouri, Illinois,
9: Memphis, Oklahoma, Creighton, Colorado
10: Cincinnati, Oregon, Temple, St. Mary's
11: Wichita State, Iowa State, Cal, Villanova,
12: La Salle/Boise, Tennessee/Kentucky, Belmont, Stephen F. Austin
13: Louisiana Tech, Bucknell, Akron, South Dakota State
14: Valpo, Harvard, Montana, Davidson
15: Iona, Long Beach State, Florida Gulf Coast, Vermont
16: Norfolk State, LIU-Brooklyn, WKU/Liberty, James Madison/Southern
Auto-bids were given to the top seed remaining in each conference tournament.
Last four byes: Wichita State, Iowa State, Cal, Villanova
Last four in: Boise State, Kentucky, La Salle, Tennessee
First four out: Ole Miss, Virginia, Iowa, Baylor
Next four out: Charlotte, UMass, Stanford, Alabama (MTSU, for what it's worth, is right behind Alabama)
Of course, I am a complete non-expert, so while making a bracket was instructive to me, and I leave my own thoughts up as fodder for discussion, it is likely more instructive to you to see where Tennessee lies in the brackets of the real experts. We'll start with the big names in sports media.
Last four byes: Villanova, Iowa State, Wichita State, Temple
Last four in: La Salle, Boise State, Kentucky, Virginia
First four out: Tennessee, MTSU, Ole Miss, Baylor
Next four out: Southern Miss, Alabama, Iowa, Arizona State
Last four byes: Wichita State, Oklahoma, Villanova, Boise State
Last four in: La Salle, Tennessee, Kentucky, Iowa State
First four out: UMass, Ole Miss, Alabama, Charlotte
Last four byes: St. Mary's, Wichita State, Temple, Boise State
Last four in: Cincinnati, La Salle, Tennessee, Kentucky
First four out: Virginia, MTSU, Ole Miss, Baylor
Now according to the folks at Bracket Project who track brackets, the big names aren't exactly the most accurate. Of the five most accurate brackets from the last several years, I was able to track down three who are making brackets this year. Here's where they put Tennessee.
Last four byes: Cincinnati, St. Mary's, Iowa State, La Salle
Last four in: Kentucky, Tennessee, Boise State, Villanova
First four out: MTSU, Virginia, UMass, Ole Miss
Next four out: Stanford, Alabama, Baylor, Charlotte
Last four byes: Temple, Villanova, Iowa State, Boise State
Last four in: St. Mary's, La Salle, Tennessee, Kentucky
First four out: Virginia, Iowa, Ole Miss, Baylor
Next four out: MTSU, Stanford, UMass, Southern Miss
Last four byes: Colorado, St. Mary's, Temple, Iowa State
Last four in: La Salle, Tennessee, Villanova, Kentucky
NIT one-seeds: Ole Miss, UMass, Iowa, Baylor
NIT two-seeds: Charlotte, Virginia, Alabama, Southern Miss
(bracket went up before MTSU lost their auto-bid)
And, of course, we have the compilation of all the brackets from Bracket Project
Last four byes: St. Mary's, Temple, Iowa State, Villanova
Last four in: Boise State, La Salle, Kentucky, Tennessee
First four out: MTSU, Virginia, Ole Miss, Iowa
Next four out: Southern Miss, Baylor, Alabama [no more at-large teams listed in any brackets [but message about at-large teams in these brackets]]
*Root against every team (except Tennessee) listed in any of those categories. That's 19 teams to root against (Wichita State, St. Mary's, and MTSU are already done.) and one to root for. In only one case do two teams in the "root against" category play each other in their first tournament game: Iowa State/Oklahoma (root for Oklahoma).
*La Salle and Tennessee are pretty much the same team. Including my bracket, five of the seven have La Salle and Tennessee directly next to each other in the S-Curve. La Salle has an RPI edge (41 to 55 currently). Tennessee has a better top 50 record (4-4 to 2-3). Tennessee has a better win (Florida vs Butler), but La Salle has a better best road win (VCU vs Texas A&M). Both are .500 against the 50-100 group. La Salle has fewer sub-100 losses (one vs two) but more sub-200 losses (one vs zero). Right now, there seems to be a slight preference for the Explorers, but it won't take much in the conference tournaments to change that.
*Tennessee and Kentucky are too. Taking the six expert brackets and the compilation, Tennessee and Kentucky are directly adjacent in five of seven brackets. The RPI difference is just five (in favor of Kentucky), and Kentucky has two more wins and one fewer loss. But the only real differences in the resumes are an extra top 50 win (Wichita State, home) for Tennessee and an extra sub-100 loss (Georgia, home) for Tennessee. Which one is more important? Don't look at me. Additionally, this will be quite the test of whether margin of victory in the home-and-home split is important. UK won by 10. UT won by 30. I have a suspicion that the latter (margin, not result) will be written off as UK figuring out how to play in the wake of the Noel injury, but we shall see.
*Virginia, like the Colorado State logo, is a Rorschach test. Do you see the 8-3 record against the top 100? Or the 7-6 record against teams 100-200 and the loss to Old Dominion (RPI 316)? Lunardi has them in the field, four of our six experts have them as the first or second team out, and Palm has them nowhere to be found. Along with Kentucky and La Salle, they are our closest competition for the last tourney spots.
*If the Vols want to make the field while bypassing Dayton, they need to pass two of the following five teams (in addition to La Salle and Kentucky): Boise State, Iowa State, Villanova, St. Mary's, Temple. Wichita State, Oklahoma, and Cincinnati are floating around a few bubbles, but I'm not convinced the Vols can pass any of them without without passing two of the five listed. OU and UC are listed as high as 9 seeds in other predictions, so they're tough teams to find consensus. [Note: all of these brackets were compiled before St. Mary's lost to Gonzaga. While Gonzaga is likely a one-seed and aren't a bad loss, a lot of basketball folks on twitter are saying that St. Mary's failed the eye test and should be in danger of missing the tournament altogether]
*Most threatening teams clearly behind Tennessee: Ole Miss, Baylor, UMass, Iowa, Alabama. Mostly Ole Miss and Baylor, but watch for all five. They don't need to make any moves
Finally, your rooting guide, grouped by importance.
Of Vital Importance
*Tennessee over South Carolina/Mississippi State (Thursday). If Tennessee loses this one, I can't see enough others choking to keep the Vols in the field. And South Carolina has a nasty history against UT in the SEC Tournament.
*Tennessee over Alabama (Friday). If the Vols aren't eliminated already, this becomes the biggest game on the schedule. UT needs to out-perform Kentucky, Virginia, and La Salle, and all three have byes to this point in their tournament. And to make matters worse, an Alabama win could give the Tide the argument they need to jump the Vols. Andy Glockner and SBNation's Chris Dobbertean (who would've been included if his bracket had been updated after Virginia/Maryland at the time of my writing) have called this an elimination game for the bubble. It's possible that the Vols could survive a loss, but a whole lot would have to break right.
*Memphis over everybody. Bid-stealers are bad. Most leagues won't have bid-stealers, but the CUSA--as the only league with exactly one team in the at-large picture--is dangerous. If Memphis doesn't win the league, the bubble picture shrinks by one. That hurts the last team in, which in most brackets is Tennessee.
*Butler/Dayton over La Salle (Friday). A loss to Butler won't do much harm to the Explorers' resume, but it could allow Tennessee to pass them with a win over Alabama. A loss to Dayton, while much less likely, may well send La Salle to the NIT.
*NC State/Virginia Tech over Virginia (Friday). Again, a VT win does more damage, and NC State win is more likely. Everybody except Lunardi thinks UT is ahead of UVA, and if they get knocked off on Friday, that won't change barring a Thursday loss by Tennessee.
*Arkansas/Vanderbilt over Kentucky (Friday). If both Tennessee and Kentucky make it to Friday and go down, Kentucky's loss will be worse. That might be enough. Maybe.
If you're not already spread too thin, these are important too.
*Florida over LSU/Georgia (Friday). If the Vols make it to Saturday, they don't want another opportunity to take a bad loss.
*Tennessee over Florida (Saturday, if it occurs). If the Vols make it to Saturday and see Florida as their opponent, they'll have beaten a top 100 team and hopefully gone farther than at least one of Kentucky, La Salle, and Virginia. Additionally, a loss to a top three seed wouldn't hurt the resume much. But a win Saturday may get the Vols straight to the second round (which I will still call the first round) of the NCAA tournament.
*Kentucky, La Salle, and Virginia to lose on Saturday (if they make it). If they're here and the Vols aren't, it's trouble, but keep rooting against them anyways.
*Missouri/Texas A&M over Ole Miss (Friday). Tennessee may not feel Ole Miss' breath on their neck, but a neutral site win over Missouri would go a long way. A loss here probably ends things for the Rebels.
*Oklahoma State over Baylor (Friday). For the same reasons.
*Northwestern/Michigan State over Iowa (Thursday/Friday). Northwestern plays the Hawkeyes in round one, but an Iowa win there wouldn't do much. In round two, they'd face Michigan State and would need that win to have a chance to jump Tennessee.
*San Diego State over Boise State (Wednesday). This would be a quality loss for the Broncos, who are probably ahead of Tennessee, but every little bit helps.
*St. John's over Villanova (Wednesday). If Tennessee makes it to Saturday, a St. John's win might bump the Vols over the Wildcats. This would be somewhat comparable to a UT loss to Alabama, so if UT falls Friday, this probably won't come into play. But root for it just in case. And if 'Nova wins, root for Louisville the following day.
*Oklahoma over Iowa State (Thursday). Some are construing this as a bubble battle, but Iowa State is much lower in the bubble. In fact, some have Iowa State below Tennessee. Whether they are or not, it's better for them to not win.
*A-10 Quarterfinal (Friday). This is after a prospective Tennessee/Alabama game, so you can figure it out then. It will most likely be UMass against Temple. If the Vols are in the semi-finals, UMass can't do much to pass them, so root for the Minutemen to try to get Tennessee past Temple and out of Dayton. If the Vols have fallen, root against anyone on the cut-line or below (i.e. root against UMass--Temple is probably safe).
*Bid-stealers are bad. This is important, but it's low on the list because it's not likely anywhere but the CUSA. The A-10, MWC, and BCS leagues all have plenty of tournament locks. As long as each tourney crown is taken home by one of those locks, the bubble doesn't shrink.
For completeness sake
*Providence over Cincinnati (Wednesday). I'm not sure the Bearcats are in much danger, but a loss to Providence won't help. Root for the winner to fall swiftly to Georgetown the following day.
*The Pac-12? UCLA and Arizona are stone-cold tournament locks who are on the same side of the bracket. Colorado, Oregon, and Cal are all probably safe but are floating around the double-digit seed range, so first-round losses may make their fans sweat. You can root for Oregon State over Colorado (Wednesday) easily enough--the Beavers aren't a likely Cinderella. But Oregon and Cal are on the same side of the bracket, and if you don't want to sweat the Pac-12 title game, you want to see one of them make the finals. Definitely root for UCLA on Thursday when they play a fringe bubble team in Stanford or Arizona State.
*Richmond/St. Louis over Charlotte (Thursday/Friday). The 9ers probably can't do much with a win over Richmond Thursday, but they may make trouble with a win over St. Louis Friday. Best if they go gentle into that good night.
*Wake Forest/Duke over Maryland (Thursday/Friday). Much the same. Consensus is that Maryland is tournament title or bust, but a win over Duke could change that. I don't think many outside College Park and North Durham would be upset to see Wake Forest make a run to the semi-finals.
*Not Southern Miss (Thursday/Friday/Saturday). You're already rooting for Memphis, so it's best if their closest competition (and only fringe bubble candidate) goes down early. They open with UAB or SMU on Thursday.