First Impressions: Midwest Region

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When you play from the 4/5 line, you run into three truths right away:

1. You’re probably going to play one of the best mid-majors in the nation in round one. That’s how, as the NCAA points out in their series on seed history, at least one 12 seed has beaten a five 30 of the last 35 years, and the 12s win 35.7% of the time overall.

…but thanks to bid thieves Georgetown and Oregon State, two of those top mid-major AQ slots fell to 13. And the Vols drew the weaker of the two thieves in Oregon State (KenPom #85 vs the #55 Hoyas).

2. Four and five seeds are projected to play the closest matchups in round two. That’s the nature of the beast. But this year’s S-curve has its imperfections, including Tennessee – the third-best five seed in the committee’s eyes – being paired with Oklahoma State, the third-best four seed.

On the seed list, there’s not a big difference between Purdue and Oklahoma State. In KenPom, it’s significant: the Boilers are 13th nationally, the Cowboys 30th. Other four seeds Virginia and Florida State are also in the KenPom Top 15. In short, if you believe in Mr. Pomeroy’s work, the Vols drew the weakest four seed. And we’ll all hold our breath with Cade Cunningham if we both get out of the first round, but Oklahoma State is a robust 298th in offensive turnover percentage…which is the very thing Tennessee’s defense does best, 14th nationally in defensive turnover percentage. Stay tuned.

3. You’re probably going to play one of the best teams in college basketball in the Sweet 16. Illinois would certainly qualify: third overall in KenPom, winners of seven straight including now Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Rutgers, Iowa, and Ohio State again in a row, all on the road or in the Big Ten Tournament. That’s stupid good. And don’t worry, I’ve got thousands of words to say about Sister Jean’s squad if they get it done instead; they too would be favored over Tennessee right now.

However, this year everyone who didn’t end up in Gonzaga’s region has to feel like a winner today. That’s not to say a loss to the Illini next week wouldn’t earn the same, “Well, we went as far as we could,” good game pat on the butt. But it’s a much more interesting conversation going in.

If you use the S-curve and the seed list, the Midwest Region is actually the easiest path for the top five seeds:

Iowa7Ohio State6Houston8Alabama5
Kansas12Arkansas9West Virginia10Texas11
Virginia16Purdue14Oklahoma St15Florida State13
Region Total53495553

Tennessee has played from the 4/5 three times since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Jerry Green’s Vols did it twice in a row from #4 in 1999 and 2000: both times they avoided the worst case scenario, and both times met a disappointing end anyway. In ’99 the Vols beat 13-seed Delaware by ten in round one, rejoiced when Missouri State upset Wisconsin as a 12 seed…and then lost by 30 in round two. The next year, the Vols survived a feisty Rajun Cajuns squad in round one, then knocked off the defending champs from UConn in the 4/5 game in round two, earning the program’s first ever Sweet 16 appearance in the 64-team field. Madness dominated the region, as the top three seeds all went down the first weekend, leaving the four-seed Vols as the favorite to make the Final Four. They led eight-seed North Carolina by three possessions with five minutes to play…and lost. It went better than we thought it would, and then it hurt more than we thought it would.

Ditto seven years later with Bruce Pearl’s second squad: more than avoided the 5-12 upset by putting 121 points on Long Beach State, then gutted out a win over four-seed Virginia in round two. This time Goliath showed up for the Sweet 16 in the form of number one seed Ohio State at 32-3 (15-1). House money, we told ourselves. Then we were up 20 late in the first half. Then we lost at the buzzer. It went (a lot) better than we thought it would, and then it hurt (a lot) more than we thought it would.

The 4/5 line was the right, fair place to send this year’s Tennessee squad. And, if you’re going to play from here, on your paper bracket the Vols avoided the tough mid-major, have the most favorable option among the four seeds, and dodged the tournament’s largest bullet from Gonzaga. If you’re going to do it from here, it’s a good way to do it.

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