The Vols are back in that “one game away from #1 in KenPom” range, with Houston’s loss to Temple shaking up college basketball’s pecking order. In the hunt for the four number one seeds, we can continue to simplify the conversation this way:
- One Loss: Purdue
- Two Losses: Alabama, Houston, Kansas State
- Three Losses: Arizona, Auburn, Kansas, Tennessee, Texas, UCLA, Virginia
In the last five non-covid-affected NCAA Tournaments, one seeds averaged 4.5 losses on Selection Sunday, two seeds 6.25 losses. A season with far fewer blue-bloods at the top may play with those averages long before we get to March; the Big 12 will certainly continue to cannibalize. The SEC puts three teams on the above list. But in KenPom, brackets, polls, you name it…there’s a clear separation with the top two.
While the Vols are pursuing the top spot in KenPom and a program record, consider where they – and the Crimson Tide – currently fall on the list of the best SEC teams in KenPom since the 2015 Kentucky juggernaut:
Top SEC KenPom Teams, 2016-2023
So yeah, the Vols are good.
So is Bama, but we can’t solve that one until February 15. The Vols get Georgia on Wednesday night, then Texas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. That’s a bit of a miss this year: the Vols have already beaten Kansas, and we’ll see how they fare in Rupp. But other than UT and the false UT, the leagues’ best teams don’t run right into each other: Alabama gets Oklahoma, Auburn gets West Virginia, Iowa State gets Missouri, Kansas State gets Florida.
Within the SEC, KenPom projects Alabama to finish 16-2, then Tennessee at 15-3, then three full games of separation to Auburn at 12-6. It may indeed become a two-team race. But the Vols also find themselves in the hunt with a dozen or so teams to get the program’s first one seed. We may come to the end of this thing not feeling real confident in any one team as the top overall seed. For Tennessee, the geography is valuable: a Louisville region is a much better prize than Kansas City, Las Vegas, or New York. That will, of course, put the Vols in direct competition with Alabama (and Purdue) to land there.
There’s plenty of basketball left here. But the Vols aren’t just playing well to the eyeballs, or in the context of this season that carries no Duke or Carolina at the top. Tennessee is, right now, playing at a more efficient level than any SEC team since 2015 Kentucky. And Alabama is right behind them.
Lots of fun out there in these next few weeks.