Earlier today, I looked at whether or not the Vols’ men’s basketball team was on the right track to nab a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And apparently not only does ESPN agree with me, but they went one better.
According to ESPN’s BPI (Basketball Power Index), the Vols are now the favorites to land the fourth and final No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. This comes after both No. 4 Duke lost on the road against unranked St. John’s 81-77 and No. 7 Kansas dropped a game at home against unranked Oklahoma State 84-79 on Saturday, effectively knocking them both down the rankings for a No. 1 seed.
Surprise losses by Duke and Kansas yesterday opened up the race for the fourth No. 1 seed (with Villanova, Virginia and Purdue near-locks). Behind them, chance to earn a No. 1 seed, per BPI:
Michigan State: 11%
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) February 4, 2018
The BPI gives the Vols the best shot with 24 percent, but Duke remains right behind them with a 22 percent chance. Fellow SEC school Auburn is tied with Xavier for the third-best odds with 13 percent.
Tennessee has never earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in program history. The Vols have twice received a berth as a two-seed, and both occasions happened under Bruce Pearl. Tennessee was a No. 2 seed in 2006 and lost in the second round and earned a No. 2 seed again in 2008 and made it to the Sweet Sixteen before falling to Louisville by 19 points.
The Vols are one of the hotter teams in college basketball right now. They’re currently on a five-game winning streak and have won eight of their last nine contests. Tennessee is currently 17-5 overall and sit second in the SEC with a 7-3 record despite starting conference play with an 0-2 mark. The Vols have won their last three contests by an average of 26.4 points and are fresh off a 94-61 drubbing of Ole Miss in Knoxville on Saturday night.
But the road ahead is much tougher than what the Vols have faced over the last couple weeks.
The average RPI ranking of Tennessee’s opponents during their five-game winning streak was 84. The average RPI ranking of the Vols’ next eight opponents is 50.5. And that includes a top 25 match-up this upcoming Tuesday when the Vols travel up to Lexington to take on Kentucky.
The Vols haven’t won in Rupp Arena since 2006, and they haven’t beaten Kentucky twice in the same season since 1999. The No. 21 Wildcats won’t forget the loss the No. 18 Vols handed them earlier this season. Kentucky will be the highest-ranked RPI team the Vols will face for the remainder of their schedule in the regular season, as the Wildcats come in at No. 16 in the RPI.
If the Vols want to earn their first No. 1 seed in program history, they’ll not only have to perform well in the regular season, but they’ll also need to do very well in the SEC Tournament. They may even need to win the tournament outright to get one of the top four seeds in the NCAA Tournament. And the Vols haven’t won the SEC Tournament in nearly four decades, last winning it in 1979.