Beat Kentucky on Sunday, and Tennessee could have stared down a No. 2 seed, and the Vols were hoping they’d be getting it in their back yard in Nashville.
Instead, following a 77-72 loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Final, UT had to settle for what could wind up a pretty sweet consolation prize. Rick Barnes’ Vols wound up getting a pretty sweet draw in Dallas. No, they won’t get to play in the friendly confines of the Music City, but a glimpse at Tennessee’s bracket shows favorable matchups all the way through to the Sweet 16 and perhaps even the Elite 8.
First thing’s first with the news: Tennessee got the No. 3 seed in the South Region, playing No. 14 seed Wright State in Dallas on Thursday. The Raiders went 25-9 and finished second in the Horizon League, trouncing Cleveland State 74-57 in the tournament final to earn the automatic bid.
So, what does Tennessee know about the Raiders?
#Vols’ Admiral Schofield on what he knows about Wright State: I know they won their league, because that’s what they just said on TV.
— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) March 11, 2018
Yep. That’s about as much as we all know, but let’s look a little deeper at them and the Horizon League.
Northern Kentucky won the regular-season title, but Wright State was the best team throughout the season. The Raiders beat the regular-season champions both times it played them, by narrow margins each time. They also beat Georgia Tech, 85-81 in Atlanta back in December. There were some bad losses throughout the year, too, but Wright State is a well put-together team that thrives defensively but is inconsistent scoring the basketball.
The Raiders are led by senior guards Grant Benzinger and Justin Mitchell, as well as 6’9″, 275-pound freshman sensation Loudon Love, who averages 12.9 points and 9.8 boards per game. But they have just two players over 6’7″, and they don’t pose much of a match-up threat for UT. They are 27th nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 65.7 points per game, though they score just 72.1 (225th).
For what it’s worth, 5Dimes’ early line says the Vols are a 13.5-point favorite.
#Vols shipped to Dallas as a 3. But they do get Wright State – the BEST matchup on paper that UT could have gotten. (1 Red Flag in our system.) Round 2 would match UT with the winner of Miami (5 Red Flags) and Loyola-Chicago (3 Red Flags). Not a bad draw… aside from Dallas.
— The Sports Source (@SportsSourceTV) March 11, 2018
After going 12-3 over their last 15 games, the Vols finished with their highest seed since 2008. They unquestionably wanted to get that elusive SECT title with a third win over Kentucky on Sunday, but the the focus now shifts toward five days of rest and preparation for Wright State.
If the Vols get past the Raiders and the winner of the Miami-Loyola (Chicago) winner in the round of 32, they’ll be rewarded with a near-home trip to Atlanta for the regional finals where No. 2 seed Cincinnati could await in the Sweet 16 and a date with top-ranked Virginia could be the draw in the Elite 8. While Loyola would be a tough out as an 11 seed, the Vols surprisingly match up well with all of those teams. Cincinnati is arguably the team the Vols could have unseated as a two-seed had they won Sunday, so, in my opinion, that’s the worst No. 2.
While Virginia is arguably the best team in the country, the Hoos aren’t going to embarrass anybody with their offense. So, that could be a rugged showdown if the Vols were to make it that far. Also, Virginia must get past Kentucky and Arizona in its half of the bracket, so that’s no guarantee, either. Is it possible the Vols could play Big Blue Nation for a FOURTH time?
Boy, wouldn’t that be fun?
Heck, this is the NCAA tournament. You have to know you’re going to have some very tough games against very good opponents, but the bottom line is this really worked out well for Tennessee. This isn’t where the Vols wanted to be (in Nashville), and while it’s a seed lower than they wanted to be, it’s where we all expected.
Now, it’s time to take this positive step forward, run with it and close the year on a high note.
As far as the other SEC teams, it goes like this. Tennessee earned the best seed because it was the best team from the jump, even if Kentucky is arguably hotter (and inarguably more talented) right now.
Kentucky is with Tennessee in the South, earning a No. 5 seed and a first-round tilt with Davidson, which beat Rhode Island and knocked Notre Dame out of the tournament. If the Wildcats win, they’ll perhaps have to face one of the nation’s hottest teams in the Arizona Wildcats for the opportunity to play Virginia if the seeds hold. Man, that’s a tough draw.
Auburn landed as the No. 4 seed in the Midwest after dropping its quarterfinal game to Alabama in the SEC tournament. The Tigers are an enigma with the short bench and all the injuries, but they play No. 13 seed Charleston in the first round. Win that one, and it could mean a date with Clemson before getting to No. 1 seed Kansas. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Bruce Pearl to have his team in the Sweet 16 going up against the Jayhawks.
Over in the East, Florida rebounded from a tough start to play much better down the stretch, and the committee rewarded the Gators with the No. 6 seed, and they don’t have an awful draw, either. They’ll play the winner of the No. 11 play-in game between the St. Bonaventure Bonnies and UCLA. The Bruins would be a tough match-up for the Gators, but it’s winnable. Win that game, and it’s a possible Texas Tech and Purdue track to reach the Elite 8, so those aren’t unwinnable.
Arkansas is another possible noise-maker in the East as a No. 7 seed playing No. 10 Butler. If the Razorbacks get past that game, they can be a match-up mis-match for Purdue in the second round with their speed and senior guard play. Could it be possible the Hogs and Gators could match up late in that bracket? They’ve got long roads before then, but the paths aren’t too gnarly.
Still in the East, Alabama is a No. 8 seed playing a very intriguing match-up in the first round against Buzz Williams’ Virginia Tech Hokies, and the winner of that game will have a huge test in the round of 32, going against Villanova, which is arguably the top overall team.
Finally in the West, Texas A&M is the seventh seed with a tough, tough first-round draw with No. 10 Providence. If the Aggies get past that game, they’ll probably face North Carolina in the second round, so that’s not easy.
Missouri feels their pain. The Tigers are the No. 8 seed in that bracket, facing Florida State. If Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers win (and they will be a bit of a wild card with Michael Porter back and shaking off some of the rest) they’ll get a chance at top-seed Xavier in the second round. The Musketeers are the worst top-seed.
It was a strong year for the SEC getting eight teams in. Only the ACC had more with nine. But we’re all focused on the Vols, who look like they could have an exciting, deep March run. If they did, it may help us get some of the bitter taste of losing to Kentucky out of our mouths.