Vols look to improve NCAA tourney hopes at SEC championships

Vols look to improve NCAA tourney hopes at SEC championships

March 10th, 2011 by Patrick Brown in Sports

ATLANTA - When the NCAA tournament selection committee members look at Tennessee's resume, they're probably going to collectively shake their heads.

Though regardless of whether the Volunteers beats Arkansas in their first round SEC tournament game tonight at the Georgia Dome, the committee will most likely put the Vols in the field of 68 anyway.

"Tennessee has too many big wins to miss the tournament," ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi said in a conference call Wednesday afternoon. "A loss tonight and they're going to a 10- or an 11-seed. A win and they just continue to percolate up.

"They're going to be a team that nobody wants to face because they're the proverbial club that when they have their 'A' game, they're a Sweet 16-level team. When they're not a 10, they're not an eight - they're like a three, on a scale of one to 10."

UT's resume is certainly perplexing. The Vols have eight wins against the top 50 teams in the Ratings Percentage Index and twice beat Belmont, the No. 51 team in those ratings. UT also lost 13 games, went just 8-8 in conference, won just three of their last eight and lost seven times to teams outside the RPI top 50.

Lunardi, who has been ESPN's bracket expert for the better part of the last decade, had UT as a 10-seed in his Wednesday projection, meaning there would be roughly 10 teams closer than the Vols to missing the tournament.

One such team is Villanova, which UT beat to win the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York City in November. The Wildcats floundered to a 5-10 finish after starting 16-1 and bottomed out in a loss to 15th-seeded South Florida in the first round of the Big East tournament on Tuesday.

But, like the Vols, Villanova and its six wins against the RPI top 50 isn't likely going to miss the tournament. Lunardi had Villanova as an 11-seed on Wednesday.

"[The Vols] are not unlike Villanova in that respect," Lunardi said, "with the exception that they're unevenness has been more spread out and Villanova's has been more concentrated."

Lunardi said the selection committee removed the component of a team's record in its last 10 or 12 games as an official selection criterion within the last two years. The logic behind the move is one team may play a more difficult schedule than another in the season's final weeks.

"They eliminated [it] as an official data point on a team's selection sheet," he said. "Officially it's less of a factor. [But] from a common sense standpoint, there's no way you could look at a Villanova and say they're playing as well in March as in December or January. That becomes more of a seeding question."

Tennessee guard Scotty Hopson shoots during an NCAA college basketball practice Wednesday in preparation for the Southeastern Conference tournament at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Tennessee guard Scotty Hopson shoots during an NCAA...

UT isn't as close to the bubble as Virginia Tech or Michigan State, which opens the Big Ten tournament against Iowa today. Lunardi said the Spartans would have to win that game and beat Purdue on Friday to feel comfortable about its tournament hopes.

Boston College and Clemson, two more bubble teams, could play a de facto elimination game Friday in the ACC quarterfinals. Georgia - Lunardi's last team in the tournament - and Alabama - Lunardi's first team out of the tournament - could do the same in Atlanta.

Lunardi said he doesn't believe the SEC will get six teams into the tournament.

"I'm not as high on Georgia as some others seem to be," he said. "That may be the truest elimination game of the week if and when it happens. Certainly if Alabama loses to Georgia on a neutral court, unlike beating them at home, they're going to be out."

From the Vols' perspective, though, the focus is on making their stay in Atlanta a long one.

"You never want to feel like you've done enough," UT coach Bruce Pearl said after Wednesday's shootaround. "It's not a done deal. You want to help your chances as much as you possibly can, so we're looking at it like we've got work to do here to secure our position."

POLL: Can Tennessee men's basketball team win the SEC tournament?