Scheduling, Seeding, and 2023

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The Jayhawks are champs, and it’s on to 2023, where Tennessee will again find themselves in the national conversation. In the earliest-way-too-earlies, you’ll find next year’s Vols #11 at 247, #14 at Sports Illustrated, and #9 from Aaron Torres. Tennessee currently has the 16th-best odds to win it all in 2023 in Vegas.

Two weeks ago we compared Rick Barnes’ best teams at Texas and Tennessee, noting how three of his best seven teams in KenPom have been right here in Knoxville, including his best-ever squad in 2019. Thanks to great tournament work from North Carolina, the 2022 Vols finished .01 points higher than 2008 Texas, making this year’s team Barnes’ fourth-best ever in KenPom, and the second-best ever at Tennessee.

All of that, of course, leads to March, where all college basketball conversations will end. It remains the biggest difference between Barnes’ peak at Texas and his current run at Tennessee: the Longhorns made the Elite Eight three times from 2003-08, including a Final Four appearance.

Each of those Texas teams to advance to the Elite Eight – where the Vols have only been once – were seeded #1 or #2. As usual, not rocket science: the best teams tend to have the best chance to advance. But we also know full well there are no guarantees on Selection Sunday. Let’s take nothing away from Duke’s Final Four run, or seek to add additional meaning to Tennessee losing in round two beyond 2-for-18 from three. The 2023 Vols will still want to position themselves as high as possible in the bracket.

In the midst of frustration and an early exit, it’s easy to feel more hopeless about the process. Sites like ours exist for conversations about the trees, which can sometimes obscure the forest. And we’re well aware of Tennessee’s brand recognition value when compared to other programs who are often shooting for the top two lines of the tournament.

And in particular this year, it was hard to look at any data on Selection Sunday and find an argument against the Vols as a #2 seed. That’s especially considering the way Tennessee and Wisconsin were handled on the overall seed line from the initial Top 16 reveal on February 19, to Selection Sunday on March 13. The Badgers somehow passed Tennessee in that span on the seed line despite going 4-2 with a home loss to Nebraska and a first-game exit in the Big Ten Tournament, while Tennessee went 7-1 and knocked off Auburn, Arkansas, and Kentucky.

When we look at all of this with a microscope, it can indeed feel hopeless. So let’s zoom all the way out and go for something much more simple: the teams to earn #1 and #2 seeds tend to be the teams with the fewest losses. Set the 2021 tournament aside with covid scheduling issues throwing the math off. Since the last major round of conference expansion in 2016, #1 seeds have averaged 4.55 losses on Selection Sunday (2016-19 plus 2022). Then #2 seeds have averaged 6.25 losses. Even if the selection committee might not phrase it this way, when deciding between two teams on the top seed lines? How often does five losses vs six losses become a simple factor?

Here too, a football mentality might bleed across all sports: did you lose this week? Then you’re going down in the AP Poll. Is your 10-2 of greater quality than their 11-1? Might not matter.

Again, not rocket science: the best teams win the most games. But I do think there’s an important scheduling component here, especially with the SEC having come so far in basketball. In those 2023 way-too-earlies? Arkansas and Kentucky go #1 and #2 in two of them. The Hogs are #1 in all three. Alabama is in the Top 15 at 247 and SI; Auburn is in the Top 15 with Torres. This league isn’t going anywhere.

So for Tennessee, who routinely schedules up, is there a conversation to be had about our own process, and how it best positions the Vols for success?

Rick Barnes does a great job getting games that get his team ready, early and often. That’s a strength, not a weakness, and one I don’t see being abandoned. But watching Tennessee’s offense this year shows Barnes was already more flexible than some gave him credit for. If you’re going to get an abundance of Quad 1 games in league play now, how many of them do you want to chase in the non-conference if the goal is to be seeded as high as possible?

Tennessee Strength of Schedule in KenPom, 2002-22

YearKenPom SOSNC SOSSeedCoach
2002548Buzz
200771055Pearl
202210423Barnes
201811203Barnes
200813242Pearl
2006131712Pearl
20171629Barnes
200519153Buzz
201122279Pearl
2019251292Barnes
201530140Tyndall
200430285NITBuzz
200931219Pearl
200332263NITBuzz
2010341606Pearl
20143611511Cuonzo
201242167NITCuonzo
20204579COVIDBarnes
201650108Barnes
2021562215Barnes
201369104NITCuonzo

The Vols finished 10th in strength of schedule this year in KenPom. And if you compare what we saw this year to 2018, just below 2022 in overall strength of schedule, note the difference in non-conference strength of schedule (NCSOS). In 2018, the Vols built their resume in large part on non-conference foes (Purdue, Villanova, North Carolina). In 2022, the SEC is even stronger, giving Tennessee a better overall strength of schedule even with a drop in non-conference scheduling.

The comparison in philosophies between Rick Barnes and Bruce Pearl is interesting. Pearl was a master of the old RPI system, routinely getting games against strong mid-major programs who were going to win a ton over the course of the season. As such, Pearl built some of his best strength of schedule ratings by playing seven KenPom Top 100 mid-majors in his six years. Barnes has only scheduled one of those foes (Furman in 2018), and prefers to go after bigger fish.

But a couple of things have changed between their tenures. The SEC/Big 12 Challenge will give you an additional non-conference showdown; the Vols don’t get to handpick their opponent, but when we’re good, they’re good. And not only has the SEC improved greatly, it’s added two games for an 18-game slate. Pearl and company played a 16-game schedule, leaving approximately 14 non-conference games each year. Barnes only has around 12.

Of those 12, history shows Tennessee normally plays:

  • 2-3 games in a major preseason tournament. In 2022-23, it’s the Battle 4 Atlantis (Butler, BYU, Dayton, Kansas, NC State, USC, Wisconsin). In 2023-24, it’s Maui.
  • 1 game in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge; since returning to the national stage in the 2018 season, the Vols have drawn West Virginia, Kansas, Kansas, and Texas.
  • 3-4 other major conference foes, with at least two of them being away from Knoxville. We know the Vols owe Arizona a visit.
  • 5-6 low-major opponents

This means more than half of Tennessee’s non-conference schedule is both meaningful and dangerous. This season, it looked like this:

  • Strong: vs Villanova, vs North Carolina, at Colorado, vs Texas Tech, Arizona, at Texas (plus vs Memphis)
  • Easier: Tennessee Martin, ETSU, Tennessee Tech, Presbyterian, UNC Greensboro, USC Upstate

So again, here’s the question: given the number of quality games you’re going to get in the SEC now, and the simplicity with which the selection committee might default to in choosing the best teams by who lost least? What’s the balance between getting your team ready, and getting them as many wins as possible?

As a fan, I’m incredibly grateful to Barnes and his team for playing so many meaningful games. And without RPI, I’m not sure it’s advantageous to do the old Pearl plan of a few less top targets and a few more strong mid-majors. But will we see a slight adjustment to account for the strength of the SEC?

It’s in Tennessee’s best interests to schedule to bring out its best basketball; you still want that more than you want to eat a dozen cupcakes and come to SEC play undefeated. But part of that best basketball in March is giving yourself the best possible chance to advance. Barnes has done it thrice from the one or the two line; the only other time one of his teams was seeded that high was his best-ever group here in 2019, an overtime away from another Elite Eight.

The 2023 Vols can be good enough to be in that top line conversation again. I’m curious to see how they schedule to reflect it.

Go Vols.

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