The committee will reveal their Top 16 this Saturday (12:30 PM CBS), a month and a day from Selection Sunday. As Wayne Staats points out, the original grouping usually holds up, for the most part. In 2018 the Vols were the top #4 seed in the first reveal, and ended up earning a #3 seed. In 2019 the Vols were the second #1 seed in the first reveal, and ended up just missing the top line as the top #2 seed.
With no geography involved this year, the individual team rankings will matter much more in the bracket (as in, the top #1 seed should be grouped with the bottom #2 seed, etc., with a few exceptions to keep the best teams from the same conferences separate). And for those dreaming of deep tournament runs, nothing matters more in 2021 than this: stay away from Gonzaga and Baylor.
The Zags and Bears are currently at least seven-point favorites against anyone else via KenPom; they’d be 12 point favorites against Tennessee. Earlier this year we talked about the value of earning one of the other #1 seeds to ensure you stayed away from those two. But as the Vols are looking to advance to just their second Elite Eight (and potentially the first Final Four), there’s still extreme value in staying off the #4 line, ensuring you wouldn’t see either of those two until at least the Elite Eight. If you get lucky and are placed in one of the other “regions”, great. But if not, at least you make some history before getting the chance to make even more against those two.
Outside the Zags and Bears, we expect the Top 16 to be dominated by the Big 10 & 12. Villanova and Houston would certainly have compelling cases, as does Virginia as the best of the ACC.
But the SEC is also making a strong case with its top three teams. In yesterday’s Bracket Matrix, Alabama was a #2 seed, with Missouri and Tennessee at #3. And in Bart Torvik’s predictive bracketology, the Vols and Tide are both on the #2 line, with Missouri at #5. And those three teams are finished playing each other in the regular season.
Getting three teams in the Top 16 on Selection Sunday would be a major win for the SEC, especially with no Kentucky in the mix. How far has the league come? Since expansion to 14 teams nearly ten years ago now, here’s how often the SEC has placed teams on the Top 4 lines in the NCAA Tournmament:
- 2013: Florida (3)
- 2014: Florida (1)
- 2015: Kentucky (1)
- 2016: Texas A&M (3), Kentucky (4)
- 2017: Kentucky (2), Florida (4)
- 2018: Tennessee (3), Auburn (4)
- 2019: Tennessee (2), Kentucky (2), LSU (3)
In fact, in the last played tournament two years ago, Auburn and Mississippi State just missed the Top 16, both on the #5 line.
While Arkansas and LSU try to stay on the right side of the bubble, don’t discount Florida either: the Gators are currently a #7 seed in the Bracket Matrix, but have games left with Arkansas, Missouri and, if rescheduled, Tennessee. The league should be able to get six teams in the field, but the three (maybe four) teams at the top can be about as good a group as we’ve seen since expansion. The league continues to trend in the right direction in basketball, and Tennessee continues to be a big part of it. Getting to a #3 seed or higher means your season doesn’t end via Gonzaga or Baylor without making some history first. And with Saturday’s performance still fresh in our minds, Tennessee’s expanding ceiling suggests they’ll very much belong in the Top 16.