This article is part of our March Madness series.
The Tennessee Lady Volunteers’ contests have entirely lacked excitement. The Lady Vols walloped No. 13 seed Saint Louis 95-50 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, followed by an even more lopsided 94-47 score over No. 12 seed Toledo. Eventual champion South Carolina led last year’s field in point differential after the opening weekend. This year, the Lady Vols have won the first two rounds by the most of any women’s or men’s team — and the second-most when compared to the champions on both sides in the past five tournaments. As a result, their odds of winning the championship have skyrocketed from less than 1 percent before the start of the tournament to 5 percent heading into the Sweet 16, according to our model.
On its face, the idea that facing stiff tests early in the tournament better prepares you for the Sweet 16 and beyond seems plausible. But that hasn’t been true historically. On average, the past five champions on the women’s side have beaten their first two opponents by a total of 64.2 points. Besides, championship contenders have plenty of time to hone their late-game skills in the regular season, when their opponents are often stronger than those in the first few rounds of the tournament.
Indeed, St. Louis and Toledo were two of the 11 weakest opponents Tennessee has faced all year, according to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, or adjusted point differential. The Lady Vols made up for an easy road in the tournament with a hard road in the regular season; Tennessee opened the regular season 2-4 but won 21 of its last 28 regular-season and conference tournament games against the toughest schedule in college basketball.
Still, it’s taken extraordinary talent for Tennessee to lead the tournament in point differential through two games. Jordan Horston and Rickea Jackson are a two-headed monster, and the Lady Volunteers are comfortable with either initiating the offense. Both have diverse skill sets, comfortable handling or screening in the pick and roll, shooting or driving. They led Tennessee through the regular season, and their numbers are remarkably similar through two games.
But in many ways, Tennessee’s strengths have been characterized by group effort.
The Lady Vols have the second-most offensive rebounds in the tournament, as well as the third-most transition possessions (while scoring the second-most efficiently in the open floor). They’ve done their damage by committee: Six players have at least three offensive rebounds, while nine players have scored at least 3 points in transition. They are on a hot streak from deep, connecting on 41.5 percent through the tournament compared to 31.8 on the year, but that’s not enough to explain their utter dominance.
Teams that win their first two tournament games by such wide margins aren’t guaranteed anything. In 2021, Brenda Frese and No. 2 seed Maryland won their first two games by a combined 89 points before falling to No. 6 seed Texas in the Sweet 16. Maryland’s 3-point shooting — which was the second-best in the nation — went cold in the loss.
Tennessee is about to face its stiffest test of the tourney in No. 1 seed Virginia Tech. The two sides played in early December of last year, and despite being without Jackson, the Vols were just a missed triple away from sending the game to overtime. The Lady Vols may be a lesser-seeded team, but our model has them pegged as the favorite, with a 58 percent chance of advancing to the Elite Eight.
Tennessee has one of the most storied resumes in college basketball, with the most Sweet 16 appearances on the men’s or women’s sides in tournament history, but it hasn’t won the tournament since 2008, when Candace Parker was on the roster. (That team won its first two games by a mere 49 points.) Last year, Tennessee lost in the Sweet 16 to No. 1 seed Louisville. But Horston was injured and Jackson wasn’t yet a Lady Vol, languishing in the transfer portal. This year’s team is peaking at the right time, looking to repeat old history and redeem recent losses. If we’re lucky, the Lady Vols might even get a close game on their hands.
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