The NCAA Tournament is about match-ups. This is the mantra of mid-March, accompanying pounding fists on screen and in print. Your seed is important, but your draw matters more. With the rise of mid-major conferences and an increase in overall parity this seems increasingly true: in all five years of the First Four in Dayton, one of the proverbial last four in has advanced to the Round of 32, with three of them going on to the Sweet 16 (including the Vols in 2014). Eleven seeds ain't what they used to be.
However, one seeds remain the belles of the ball. The space between a one and two seed is often greater than between, say, a six and seven. Since 1980 there have only been two Final Fours without any one seeds: 2006 (won by three seed Florida) and 2011 (won by three seed UConn). You can bank on at least one of the top seeds getting there every year, but the other three have become much more questionable in the last few years. Even this year, with three ones in the Final Four, you had a seven seed crashing the party in Michigan State.
From 2001-09 the Final Four was reserved for the best of the best: of the 36 teams making their way to the semifinals during these years, you had 16 one seeds, nine two seeds, and six three seeds. The other five teams included a pair of fours, a pair of fives, and the 2006 George Mason squad, an 11 seed. The average sum of the seeds in those nine Final Fours was nine.
But in the last decade more parity has led to more upsets. Where only five teams seeded outside the top three made the Final Four from 2001-09, a dozen such squads have made the Final Four in the last six years. This includes two sevens, two eights, a nine, and 2011 VCU from the First Four as an 11 seed. The average sum of the seeds in the last six Final Fours is 15.6. As Bruce Pearl used to say, once you get to the Round of 32, everybody is good.
This, of course, is better understood as most of the 32 teams seeded one thru eight are now capable of advancing deep into the tournament, especially the ones able to dodge or delay a match-up with a one seed. Sometimes the match-ups are about who you didn't play. Tennessee's last two Sweet 16 appearances came via a 14 seed taking down a three in the Round of 64, making life much easier on the Vols in the Round of 32.
You need the match-ups to work in your favor, and seeding is especially important at the top of the bracket. And those two things worked directly against what remains Tennessee's best team of the 64-team bracket era.
What if Tennessee was a one seed in the 2008 NCAA Tournament?
Let's begin with an easy acknowledgement: Kansas won the 2008 title. With or without their late game heroics and late game failures at the free throw line from Memphis, the Jayhawks were deserving champions. I'm not suggesting the 2008 Vols would have won it all or would have beaten Kansas head-to-head.
I am suggesting Tennessee was more deserving of the final one seed on Selection Sunday.
The 2007-08 Vols were 30-4 at the end of the regular season, perhaps penalized for losing two of their final six games after beating number one Memphis on the road on February 23. Tennessee lost at #18 Vanderbilt by three points and lost to Arkansas by one in the semifinals of the tornado tournament in Atlanta. But their RPI was through the roof, and looks just as strong seven years later.
Here are the teams which finished first in RPI at the end of the regular season since the formula was changed for the 2004-05 season:
Not only do the 2008 Vols have the fourth-best season-ending RPI, only one other team (2005 North Carolina) who didn't finish first has a better number than .6807. And at the time it was third-best.
Any conversation about RPI will include criticism of the formula as the best way to rank basketball teams. I agree with those criticisms. I'm not suggesting 2008 Tennessee was a better basketball team than 2015 Kentucky. But as long as the selection committee continues to value it over KenPom and other metrics, which were more obscure back in 2008, RPI will continue to matter in seeding conversations.
While only four of these 11 RPI number ones have become the NCAA Tournament's number one overall seed, eight went on to be one seeds in general. The 2009 & 2013 Duke teams did not earn one seeds (sorry, Duke conspiracy theorists), but both had more losses and a lower RPI than the 2008 Vols.
Duke is always going to do well in RPI in part because they play in the ACC; stronger leagues mean more games against teams with stronger records. But Duke is also successful in RPI for the same reason the Vols were in 2008: they schedule up in the non-conference.
Here's a portion of Tennessee's 2008 non-conference schedule: West Virginia & Texas on a neutral floor, Western Kentucky in Nashville, at Xavier, at Gonzaga, vs Ohio State, and of course, at number one Memphis. The Vols went 6-1 in those games.
You can certainly argue the selection committee got it right in 2008 as it's the only time in history all four one seeds have advanced to the Final Four. But Kansas, the final one seed if you believe in the s-curve, was fourth in RPI at 31-3 and .6552. The Jayhawks played just three ranked foes in the regular season and lost to two of them. Perhaps they were bolstered by a 10-point win over #6 Texas in the Big 12 Tournament finals. Or perhaps Tennessee just didn't get the nod because the name on the front of our jersey isn't as historically impressive as all the others in the above list.
Either way, the Vols didn't just get bumped off the one line. They got a terrible draw.
The Importance of the S-Curve
The tournament is about match-ups, and those are more important than both seeds and location. Case in point: in 2008 the Vols didn't just miss out on a one seed, they got shipped to the Charlotte regional. It was a favor to our gas mileage, but not to our chances: the Vols were matched up with number one overall seed North Carolina.
And Tennessee didn't even get that far: being placed as the weakest two seed means the Vols also drew the strongest three seed: Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals.
The 2008 Vols were imperfect, most notably due to a lack of strong point guard play down the stretch. Heading into the NCAA Tournament Bruce Pearl was experimenting with J.P. Prince at point guard to go with the three point shooting duo of Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith and a Tyler Smith/Wayne Chism/Duke Crews rotation on the block. Still, Tennessee's ability to spread the floor with Lofton and Smith while also having a scoring threat in the post was their greatest strength. It helped them get past a pesky Butler squad in the Round of 32, another favor from the committee in the tournament's earliest match-up of 30-game winners.
But the quickest way to frustrate Tennessee's shooters was with pressure and length, and Louisville was the first team all year to really hit the Vols with both. Lofton and Smith were both just 6'2", while the Cardinals employed 6'10" Earl Clark, 6'6" Terrence Williams, and 6'8" Juan Palacios to help force 17 Vol turnovers and hold Tennessee to 5-of-20 from the three point line. Chris Lofton, with his battle with cancer not yet public, was just 2-of-11 from the arc in his final game as a Vol. Louisville led 37-30 at halftime, watched Tennessee cut it to one to open the second half, and then ran away for a 79-60 final.
Had the Vols instead earned the final one seed? After disposing of 16 seed Portland State, they would have faced eight seed UNLV. Kansas beat the Runnin' Rebels by 19. In Detroit the bracket broke extraordinarily well for the Jayhawks: they met 12 seed Villanova in the Sweet 16 and won by 15. Tennessee would have had a much more favorable chance to make their first Elite Eight two years earlier.
But the greatest missed opportunity of this what if? Look who would have been waiting in the Elite Eight.
Chris Lofton vs Stephen Curry?
Davidson, like Butler, was criminally under-seeded in 2008, still a few years too early for real mid-major respect. They were ranked #23 in the AP poll entering the tournament but earned only a 10 seed. But no worries: Stephen Curry scored 40 in the opener against Gonzaga, including 30 in the second half, while shooting 8-of-10 from the three point line to give Davidson an opening round win. Then against two seed Georgetown in the Round of 32, Curry scored 25 of his 30 in the second half to score a second upset. In the Sweet 16 they took the drama out early: 33 from Curry led Davidson in a blowout of three seed Wisconsin.
Kansas held him to 25 points on 25 shots and still only won by a deuce. I have no idea if the Vols would have fared any better, but I would have loved to see them try.
Chris Lofton remains fifth on the all-time NCAA three pointers made list with 431. Curry is just behind with 414, and in only three seasons. However, Lofton has him on percentage (42.2% to 41.2%). Most impressively, Lofton has the best three point percentage of any college player to attempt more than 1,000 threes.
I don't think the 2008 Vols were ever going any further than the Final Four, especially in such a loaded year with all the one seeds advancing. But had they not been poorly placed in the s-curve, they perhaps could have advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time. And had their roles been reversed with Kansas for the final one seed I believe they deserved, they could have advanced to the program's only Final Four via an epic showdown between two of the best three point shooters of all-time.