March Madness: Predicting how far SEC champ Tennessee goes in the NCAA Tournament
Tennessee heads into the NCAA Tournament with elite expectations. However, the Vols also begin the next phase of the postseason with a history that’s tough to forget and more difficult to explain.
The Vols achieved a lofty ranking Sunday; they’re the No. 3 seed in the South Region and open against No. 14 Longwood in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Indianapolis. Many thought the Vols would gain a No. 2 seed, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, Kentucky and Auburn were both selected as No. 2 seeds despite the fact that the Vols beat both during the latter part of the regular season and knocked the Wildcats out of the SEC Tournament on Saturday before winning the SEC title Sunday.
Thanks to a 65-50 win over Texas A&M on Sunday, the Vols are SEC Tournament champs for the first time since 1979 and are riding a wave of success. Tennessee has been a media darling throughout the past couple of months. Two wins over Kentucky will do that. More recently, wins over ranked teams like Auburn and Arkansas have continued to enhance Tennessee’s tournament stock. However, the NCAA Tournament hasn’t treated Tennessee kindly over the years. It hasn’t been much more gentile with Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes, even before he was a Vol. Both have struggled in the postseason.
Let’s start with Barnes. The legendary head coach has over 750 career wins, which places him firmly in the top 20 in college basketball history. However, he has only made the Final Four just once. That came in 2003 when he was the head coach at Texas. Tennessee’s postseason basketball history been even worse. The Vols have never made the Final Four and only advanced to the Elite 8 once. There is, however, plenty of room for optimism.
The Vols are a guard-oriented team that looks like it is built to fare well in March. The Vols have a strong post presence, are patient and play well against high-level competition, which they’ll be asked to do this week. The Vols are pretty simple to figure out. If they shoot and rebound well, they’ll win. In 5 of their 7 losses, the Vols failed to shoot above 30% from 3-point range. In 5 of their 7 losses, they were out-rebounded. Pretty simple, huh? The Vols have star power but not enough to overcome a long scoring drought. That has undermined their chances of success at various times this season.
Longwood earned an automatic bid by winning the Big South Tournament. It is the first bid to the NCAA Tournament in Longwood history. Longwood was 15-1 this season in the Big South. The Lancers like to rely on their 38.6% shooting from 3-point range. That gives Longwood a puncher’s — or a shooter’s chance — against any team in the first round. The Lancers are led mostly by 3 players. Isaiah Wilkins, who played at Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, is a good guard who can play defense and be a team leader. Justin Hill leads Longwood in scoring and assists. Wilkins leads Longwood in rebounds.
The Vols are probably not happy with being a No. 3 seed, but their draw should have fans optimistic for the first round. If the Vols beat Longwood, Tennessee will face the winner of No. 6 Colorado State and No. 11 Michigan in the second round. Both of those opponents are beatable. Many believe Michigan — 17-14 and 7-7 in its past 14 — shouldn’t even have made the field. Conversely, Tennessee is one of the hottest teams in the nation and has beaten much better teams this season.
A win in the 2nd round would place the Vols in the Sweet 16. The most likely opponent would be No. 2 seed Villanova. This could be one of the least exciting games in the entire tournament. Both teams rely on defense. Neither team is trying to score 80 points. Both are trying to hold opponents to under 40 points. Never mind the aesthetics, both teams have shown they can win with a slow pace. I’ll take Tennessee to advance past a possible Villanova matchup and reach the Elite 8 for just the 2nd time.
If that happens, they’ll likely have to face No. 1 seed Arizona. That will be a different level of competition.
Arizona was recently rated the No. 2 team in the nation by the Coaches and Associated Press poll. The Wildcats just won the Pac-12 Tournament with an 84-76 win over UCLA. It’s tough to imagine the Vols getting past Arizona and making it to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
Arizona’s ability and Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament history make that notion seem a bit far-fetched.
Prediction: A remarkable season that included the program’s first SEC Tournament title since 1979 ends in a rare spot in the Elite 8, just shy of a historic place in the Final Four.
Tennessee online sports betting officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.