In what's been a drought for Tennessee, the Lady Vols are a 1 seed for the first time since 2011. Yes, we're spoiled and we know it.
The first two #1 seeds were obvious: UConn sits atop the Lincoln regional with Duke as the 2 seed; Notre Dame leads the, um, Notre Dame regional with Baylor as the 2 seed (let us pause and enjoy the moment here). Tennessee was seen by most as the next in line, and they did indeed earn the third 1 slot in the Louisville regional, where West Virginia is the 2 (!) and Louisville fell to a three based on weak non-conference scheduling and an AAC schedule that was basically UConn-and-a-lot-of-cakewalks. That left South Carolina as the surprising 1 seed in the Stanford regional, where they're sure to enjoy the threesome of MTSU, UNC, and Stanford on their dream path to the Final Four.
So how did Tennessee get a 1 seed?
There were legitimate arguments for making the Lady Vols a 2 seed - most notably their 5 losses and some dubious losses to Vanderbilt, LSU, and Kentucky during conference play. But their overall schedule was highly commendable: nonconference games against MTSU, UNC, Stanford, Notre Dame, Chattanooga, and Georgia Tech - all NCAA tournament teams, including a 1 seed, a very-close-to-a-1-seed, and a 4 seed. They also beat 1 seed South Carolina, 3 seeds Kentucky and Texas A&M, 7 seed LSU, and more during conference play. That's a lot of wins against tournament teams, and they were duly rewarded, especially as many of those came late after the mid-season slump. Tough schedule, lots of marquee wins, and playing hot at the end of the season? Easy formula for high seeding.
So who do they play?
The opening game is against Northwestern State, winners of the Southland conference. While a 1 seed has lost in the first round in the women's tournament (Stanford), it's safe to assume a win here until proven otherwise. After that is the winner of St. John's and Southern Cal. Most likely, the road is then through the winner of Texas/Maryland, with the winner of Louisville/West Virginia waiting in the Elite Eight. Tennessee's bracket is on Notre Dame's side, so a game against UConn can't happen until the championship game.
What are the concerns?
Leaving the Final Four out of the discussion, the three concerns are: Maryland in the Sweet Sixteen, and either Louisville or West Virginia in the Elite Eight. Maryland has games where they look like a legit 2-bordering-on-a-1 seed, and others where they look like an 8. Both Louisville and West Virginia are the products of many wins against bad teams and few wins against good ones, though West Virginia at least has a win against Baylor, which is far better than any win on Louisville's resume. These two are somewhat of an unknown, as there just isn't a track record to gauge them by.
All in all, this is a very nice bracket for Tennessee. It beats being in Stanford's region by a clear mile. The only regret is not having Baylor, and I'm torn whether I want a crack at them or whether I want them to fail prior to the Final Four. (I just can't see them getting past Notre Dame, which solves the entire problem.)
Thoughts on the Bracket:
- The committee loves the SEC. Vanderbilt got an 8 seed and Florida got an 11. Both teams could easily have been left out of the field entirely. I think they liked Vanderbilt's senior guard tandem of Foggie and Lister, and discounted the effect of injuries for the team. They might have given Balcomb a bit of a pass on this year as well and nudged Vanderbilt up a bit.
- The committee hates non-champions. Louisville didn't win the regular season or the tournament in-conference because UConn, and got sent to the 3 seed when most people had them pegged as the top 2 seed. Stanford fell to a 2 seed despite a 29-3 record and a win over Tennessee because ... South Carolina also won a regular season crown? I don't really understand this one, but it doesn't matter much: had Stanford been a 1, South Carolina would likely have been a 2 in their region, so it all works out.
- Strength of Schedule matters, except when it doesn't. Tennessee's SoS carried them to a 1 seed, and LSU's carried them to a 7 (though this dovetails to the first bullet point). Yet West Virginia and Baylor got 2 seeds while Louisville got a 3. Even though Louisville had the highest SoS of the three, they didn't have any marquee wins, while Baylor and West Virginia beat ... each other. They also had wins over Oklahoma State, which gets back to Louisville's huge problem in the AAC: with only UConn as a quality opponent in conference, the Cardinals have to find at least one ranked nonconference win to buoy their resume and prove their worth. This is likely why they fell from a 1 to a 3.
Opening game is in Knoxville on Saturday, March 22 at 4 PM Eastern in Knoxville. We'll have a live thread up to enjoy the Lady Vols' christening of the 2014 tournament.