If Tennessee’s third straight 20+ point win didn’t give you the vapors, this definitely will:
Surprise losses by Duke and Kansas yesterday opened up the race for the fourth No. 1 seed (with Villanova, Virginia and Purdue near-locks). Behind them, chance to earn a No. 1 seed, per BPI:
Michigan State: 11%
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) February 4, 2018
This is a ceiling week for Tennessee: at Kentucky, at Alabama. These two and a visit from Florida on February 21 are the remaining signature wins on Tennessee’s schedule. The Vols also have a second date with Ole Miss, plus four games with teams currently on the wrong side of the bubble: two with Georgia, a visit from South Carolina and a trip to Starkville.
So here’s some good news if the topic of this post is a little too much for you: if the Vols just go 4-4 in these last eight games, they’ll finish 21-9 (11-7) with a projected RPI of 20. The Sagrain ratings at RPI Forecast project a 5-3 finish, Ken Pomeroy’s like 6-2. And so does ESPN’s BPI, which thinks so highly of the Vols as a one seed.
Before last weekend, I felt like thinking of the Vols as a three seed was greedy. After missing both the NCAAs and NIT the last three years, it’s good for us to be cautious. But BPI has no such burden.
Villanova, Purdue, Virginia and…
The only three teams to receive first place votes in both polls, this trio is clearly college basketball’s top tier. They also go 1-2-3 in KenPom. Villanova is +33.22 in adjusted efficiency margin; only 2015 Kentucky and the team that beat them from Wisconsin have finished above 33 in KenPom in the last six years. Virginia is right behind them at 32.86, with Purdue at 29.85. They have four losses between them; Virginia and Purdue are a combined 23-0 in conference play.
Five weeks is still a long time til Selection Sunday, but these three are putting significant distance between themselves and the field. But that fourth one seed?
Can Tennessee really get in the mix? Should we even take Tennessee seriously as a potential two seed?
Historical Context: The Last One Seed & The Four Twos
I’d expect Tennessee to be a three in the Bracket Matrix this week. What would it take for the Vols to go higher than that?
Here’s how the last one seed and the four two seeds have looked on Selection Sunday since 2012, using the selection committee’s seed list (thanks, Wikipedia) with RPI ratings from Real Time RPI and pre-tournament KenPom data:
|2016 2A||Michigan State||29-5||12||2|
|2013 2D||Ohio State||26-7||10||7|
|2012 L1||Michigan State||27-7||3||3|
|2012 2C||Ohio State||27-7||7||2|
A couple observations:
- The last one seed had six or seven losses three times in the last six years. Two other times it was Gonzaga. Only once, with Wisconsin in 2015, have we seen four truly dominant power conference options on the first line.
- Of the 24 two seeds in the last six years, nine had between 7-9 losses.
- All 30 teams represented here had an RPI of 12 or better. 28 of them had a KenPom rating of 15 or better. RPI isn’t the best way to judge a basketball team, but the committee still values it, especially at the top. Strength of schedule matters, and the Vols will be in good shape there.
What does Tennessee need for an RPI of 12 or better? RPI Forecast puts the Vols at 11 if they finish 23-7, 15 if they’re 22-8. There would still be an opportunity for those numbers to go up or down at the SEC Tournament (and remember, unless the Vols are going to win the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1979, they’ll pick up an additional loss in St. Louis).
History suggests if the Vols want that last one seed, they’re going to need a 7-1 finish, or 6-2 and an SEC Tournament title. Both RPI and BPI project all the other teams in the hunt for the last one seed to finish with fewer losses than Tennessee, and considering the pedigree of that list, I’m not sure the Vols would get the benefit of the doubt. A one seed seems unlikely.
But a two seed? That’s doable.
Even a 5-3 finish would get the Vols in that conversation. Tennessee’s resume is extremely strong, as is the SEC’s reputation this year. Going 6-2 in these last eight would make Tennessee awfully hard to deny on the two line.
The most meaningful opportunity left in the regular season is the next one. We’ll know a lot more about Tennessee’s ceiling this time next week. But from a distance, it’s quite high. And while a one seed might be a little out of reach, a two is not…and this team would probably be a three if the tournament started today.
What a ridiculous thought that was at the start of the year. And what an incredible job Rick Barnes and this team have done.
Lots of good work still on the table. Go Vols.