With roughly a month left in the college basketball season, three teams already have a tight grip on one of the four No. 1 seeds in this year’s men’s NCAA tournament: Villanova, Virginia and Purdue. But the last top spot is very much up for grabs. And one team that is a legitimate contender to snag it may be a surprise to college hoops fans: Tennessee.
Tennessee, on paper, may seem like a long shot for a coveted top seed: The Vols have five losses and are only ranked 15th in the latest AP poll. What’s more, Tennessee has never been a top seed in the NCAA tournament, has never made it to the Final Four, and was predicted to finish 13th in its conference in a preseason SEC media poll.
But according to ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index, which estimates team strength and is designed to predict future performance, the Volunteers have a 37 percent chance of earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That gives them the best shot of any of the remaining teams outside the top three.
One key to BPI’s projection is that it considers not only what Tennessee has done so far but also what it thinks every team will do over the remainder of the regular season and conference tournament. So what makes the Volunteers’ chances so strong? A combination of accomplishment, a front-loaded schedule and tough roads for competitors.
Let’s start with what Tennessee has done so far this year. The Vols rank seventh in Strength of Record — strong, especially for a team with five losses, but not enough to justify making them a No. 1 seed if the season ended today. One reason Tennessee ranks so high in this measure is that those losses are made more palatable by the circumstances (opponent and game location) they came in. The Volunteers lost to the best team in Division I, Villanova, on a neutral court before falling to two top-20 BPI teams in North Carolina and Auburn at home. They have two losses against lesser opponents, Missouri and Arkansas, but both came on the road. And while neither the Tigers or Razorbacks are ranked, both are currently forecast to make the tournament and rank in the Top 50 in BPI, so these losses aren’t complete clunkers (like, say, this one).
Even if the members of the selection committee ignored Strength of Record (though it will now be right in front of them when they perform the selection), they would only see “quality” losses. In its current team sheets, the committee divides games up into quadrants of difficulty according to RPI rank and whether the game was played at home, on the road or on a neutral court. Of the four levels of difficulty, all five of Tennessee’s losses appear in the toughest quadrant at the moment. In addition, the Volunteers have recorded impressive wins against Purdue earlier this season and at Kentucky on Tuesday.
If facing all of those teams already this season sounds difficult, that’s because it is. The Volunteers have faced the fourth-toughest schedule thus far per BPI, but it’s about to get easier, because they have just the 64th-most-difficult regular-season schedule remaining. That’s right in the sweet spot: There’s a 56 percent chance they only take one or zero losses during that stretch, according to BPI, but the games are still challenging enough that they’ll get some credit for the wins. From there, they’ll likely need to win the SEC tournament to land a No. 1 seed, but they are the favorite (36 percent) to do that according to BPI. If the Vols can lose no more than once the rest of the way and win their conference tournament, their projection for getting a No. 1 seed will rise to a 85 percent.
Part of the reason Tennessee could earn a top seed even without meeting the above criteria is that its competitors have a tough road ahead.
Xavier, for example, currently has the third-best Strength of Record in Division I, but BPI projects it to lose twice more this regular season — the team is an underdog at Creighton Saturday and at Villanova the following Saturday — and is a long shot to win the Big East tournament (17 percent), which all combines to suppress the Musketeers’ chances.
Kansas is a similar story. Though it’s the best team in the Big 12, the conference is so stacked that the Jayhawks only have a 36 percent chance to win their conference tournament. Michigan State is only projected to lose about one more game during the regular season, but it isn’t as good as Purdue, according to BPI, so the Spartans will likely take another loss in their conference tournament. Duke was a serious contender until Thursday night, when the Blue Devils dropped a close game to their rival Tar Heels, reducing Duke’s chances of earning a No. 1 seed from 29 percent to 6 percent.
In other words, the best thing that Tennessee has going for it is that it’s in a slightly weaker conference than most of the other majors and happens to be the best team in that conference, per BPI. Granted, if one of those other teams outperforms its projection, then Tennessee will probably be left off the top seed line. But right now, the Vols have a shot.
Paul Sabin contributed to this story.