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How High Could Tennessee Realistically Be Seeded?

If Tennessee’s third straight 20+ point win didn’t give you the vapors, this definitely will:

Deep breaths.

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:

Seed Team Record RPI KenPom
2017 L1 Gonzaga 32-1 8 1
2017 2A Kentucky 29-5 4 4
2017 2B Arizona 30-4 2 21
2017 2C Duke 27-8 6 14
2017 2D Louisville 24-8 7 6
2016 L1 Oregon 28-6 2 13
2016 2A Michigan State 29-5 12 2
2016 2B Oklahoma 25-7 6 8
2016 2C Villanova 29-5 4 5
2016 2D Xavier 27-5 7 18
2015 L1 Wisconsin 31-3 4 2
2015 2A Virginia 29-3 7 5
2015 2B Arizona 31-3 5 3
2015 2C Gonzaga 32-2 8 7
2015 2D Kansas 26-8 3 12
2014 L1 Virginia 28-6 9 4
2014 2A Villanova 28-4 5 7
2014 2B Michigan 25-8 10 12
2014 2C Kansas 24-9 3 5
2014 2D Wisconsin 26-7 6 10
2013 L1 Gonzaga 31-2 6 4
2013 2A Miami 27-6 4 13
2013 2B Duke 27-5 1 5
2013 2C Georgetown 25-6 11 15
2013 2D Ohio State 26-7 10 7
2012 L1 Michigan State 27-7 3 3
2012 2A Kansas 27-6 6 4
2012 2B Duke 27-6 5 13
2012 2C Ohio State 27-7 7 2
2012 2D Missouri 30-4 10 5

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.

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Joel Hollingsworth

Loving this.

Andrew Cooper
Andrew Cooper

I watched some of Kentucky and Florida this weekend. They didn’t inspire fear. If Kentucky plays against us like they did Missouri the Vols should kick their butts around the court. Same with Florida. Frankly, I think Alabama looks scarier than those two teams at the moment. If we can get past this week without a loss, I’m not seeing any remaining games I think we lose. Obviously stuff could happen. Some players could get hurt or they could suddenly forget to play the way Coach Barnes has taught them to play. Barring that though, I don’t think a 7-1… Read more »

Dave Burton
Dave Burton

Nice research and depth on this one. Great read.

Gavin Driskill
Gavin Driskill

I’m all for entertaining notions that we could end up a 2 seed…we deserve nice things after all we’ve been through as a fan base in the last 10+ years.

I’m also more of a realist than I was in my younger years. We’ve won 3 (?) times at Rupp ever, so that’s probably not a game we should “expect” to win. Alabama is having a solid year, including beating Auburn without Collin Sexton.

Splitting this week would be a fantastic result, and either one would be valuable from a tiebreaker perspective in pursuit of a double bye in STL.


Unless we win the SEC tournament and win the rest of our regular season, we are not getting a 1 seed. We also need Auburn to collapse a little as well, for perception’s sake, since they effectively have a 3 game lead on us (tiebreaker: head-to-head win). I can’t remember a 1 seed coming from outside the ACC or (back in the day) the Big East which hadn’t won the regular season or tournament. I’d be thrilled with a two or three seed. Of course, this is all just intellectual stimulation unless we beat Kentucky at Rupp and Bama at… Read more »

Isaac Bishop
Isaac Bishop

I tend to agree. We need Auburn to lose a couple and beat them in the SEC tourney game to have a shot at a 1 seed. Even if that does happen there’s only three teams listed that made the No. 1 seed with 6-7 losses. So the room for error is slim. I’d be thrilled with a No. 2 seed. It’s practically just as easy of a path and when you get so far in the bracket the seeds don’t matter anymore.


It’s almost as hard for Tennessee to beat Bama at their place as it is to beat Kentucky at Rupp. 2011-12 L 50-62 2012 L 65-68 2013 W 76-59 Anthony Grant’s worst year as a coach 13-19 vs. our Elite 8 team 2015 L 57-63 2014 DNP Away (lost at TBA 38-56) 2016 DNP Away (won at TBA 59-54) For the hypothetical degenerates out there, the Over/Under could be interesting – depending on where they set it.

Isaac Bishop
Isaac Bishop

Trying not to get to excited over this.. Let’s just win tomorrow and this weekend! Then I’ll get back to you.