2021-22 Bracketology, Vol. 1: where Tennessee stands, how they could rise/fall, and best/worst NCAA Tournament draws

Normally, I don’t do any NCAA Tournament or bracket-related posts until the Monday after the Super Bowl. Most readers generally can’t get into it until that date, and neither can I. However, 2022 presents a new challenge: the NFL has turned their season into 18 weeks, and therefore, the Super Bowl is now the second Sunday of February, not the first. This is fine, because I respect and worship The Shield™, but it’s not great for content planning or breaking a long-standing routine.

So: a compromise. This is a post that serves as an introduction to Tennessee’s 2022 bracket concerns. There will be two more posts – one February 22, one March 8 – that go into further detail, answer certain questions, and explore some ideas of what works and what doesn’t in March. For now, think of this as a post that answers three concerns:

  1. Where does Tennessee stand right now from a seeding perspective?
  2. With eight games left, how will various finishes and final records leave Tennessee looking, both in SEC standings and in Tournament seeding?
  3. What are Tennessee’s best and worst possible draws?

This is a post that comes just shy of 3,000 words, so we’ll dive right in.

1. Where does Tennessee stand as of February 8?

Pretty well! Thanks for asking.

…anyway, Tennessee sets up pretty nicely for a run to the finish. Bracket Matrix, the bracket consensus site, has not updated since February 4 at the time this piece was typed. As of last Friday, they had Tennessee as the highest 5 seed, which is confusing because they have the same number of good wins and two fewer bad losses than 4 seed Michigan State, but if it’s surprising that Michigan State gets more love than Tennessee I have a beach house in Idaho for you.

More reliable, at least for the purposes of what we’re discussing, is Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast tool. It’s the only tool out there I trust that accurately represents the instability being a month-plus away from the NCAA Tournament possesses. When you’re in Tennessee’s position – good enough to be widely considered no worse than a top-20 team, not good enough to be considered a top-10 one – you have quite the amount of uncertainty. Factor in Tennessee’s 3-6 record against Quadrant 1 teams and you can see where a bracketologist might be a little lower on Tennessee than a metrics guy.

Still, things look pretty good. Here’s what the TourneyCast has to say about Tennessee’s seeding odds the remainder of the way. I only used those with at least a 5% chance of happening, because otherwise, I will get a reply to this article asking me about the possibility of being an 8 seed.

  • 1 seed: 5.2% chance
  • 2 seed: 17.6%
  • 3 seed: 21%
  • 4 seed: 21.3%
  • 5 seed: 19.6%
  • 6 seed: 11.2%

Tennessee’s average seed on TourneyCast is a 3.8, which would translate to them being roughly the 14th-ranked team in the field on Bracket Matrix. Again, seems like a fair guess for a team ranked 13th on KenPom and 18th in Wins Above Bubble.

Prefer something you think sounds more reliable? Say, a little tool from the Worldwide Leader? Well, wouldn’t you know it, ESPN now has a seed projection tool that has Tennessee at…

…oh dear. Well, forget you saw that. As a reminder, BPI believed Tennessee was the best team in the SEC last year entering the SEC Tournament, which was mighty hard to defend if you look at any metrics site in existence. I can’t figure out how they weigh certain games; if I find out I’ll let you know.

Here’s two more that I feel less confident in, but exist and are worth taking a look at. First, TeamRankings.com has a bracketology tool that places Tennessee as the 16th-ranked team in the field. They don’t provide an average seed, but their graph is less friendly to Tennessee, giving them no real shot at a 1 seed (fine) and a >5% shot at an 8 seed (wait a minute).

Lastly, there’s this mysterious website called INCC Stats. Its first function appears to be as some sort of cross-country running site for Indiana high school athletes, but its secondary function is that of a college basketball ratings site that offers a remarkably strong resemblance to a blend of Sports-Reference and KenPom. Tennessee ranks 14th in their field as well, with an average seed of 4.3. (If Tennessee beats Mississippi State, they’re expected to improve to 3.9.) This is a little harder to read because this goes along with a chart of various SEC records, but just follow the basic outline at the bottom.

So, what have we learned? What can you learn?

  • Tennessee, on the majority of sites with an NCAA Tournament forecasting tool, has roughly a 60% chance of finishing somewhere on the 3-5 seed lines. That doesn’t mean Tennessee will do this; it just means that as of February 8, it’s what they’re most likely gonna do.
  • Tennessee’s most likely outcome is a 4 seed. Again, this isn’t a guarantee; it’s just what’s most likely. On the three sites that list their odds in full, Tennessee has between a 21-27% shot of being a 4 seed.
  • There are scenarios, some more realistic than others, where Tennessee could end up a 7 seed, 6 seed, 2 seed, or even a 1. I don’t think any of them sound super realistic, but ESPN sure seems like a believer.
  • To ensure Tennessee’s status as a 4 seed or better, they’ve gotta win some big games. Which leads us to the next question.

2. What records get you what seeds heading into the SEC Tournament?

With the help of both Torvik and INCC Stats, I’m just going with remaining records that at least have a puncher’s chance of happening. Even KenPom, which is a little rosier than Torvik on Tennessee, only gives the Volunteers a 4.8% chance at going 8-0 to finish the season. Could that happen? Sure. Will it? Probably not. Likewise, Tennessee going 0-8, 1-7, or even 2-6 is extremely unlikely – none of those scenarios have more than a 2% chance of coming to fruition. So we’ll focus in on five specific runs to the finish, all of which have at least a 7% chance of happening: 3-5, 4-4, 5-3, 6-2, and 7-1.

The average seeds by record are via INCC Stats; considering Torvik is a little more positive on their seeding outcomes, you can bump up the seed listed by 0.1-0.2 if you want his numbers instead.

19-11, 10-8 SEC (3-5 finish)

  • Losses to no fewer than one Quadrant 2/3/4 opponent
  • Assuming 0-1 wins over Quadrant 1
  • Expected SEC finish: 4th or 5th
  • Average seed: 6.9
  • Chances of happening: 6.9% INCC, 6.4% Torvik, 4.4% KenPom

This would be a disastrous run to the finish, of course. Tennessee currently sits in a position where they’re >75% likely to finish in the top 3 in the SEC and >90% likely to finish top 4; this is the only realistic outcome that would put a top-four finish in very real doubt, and if you’re going 3-5 to the finish against this schedule, anything is possible in the SEC Tournament in a bad way.

Tennessee would have done enough to likely be a 7 seed, but if Tennessee gets here, it means they’ve lost all four of their coin-flip games (Mississippi State, Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn) and suffered a real upset at the hands of, say, Missouri. It’s the type of finish that makes you an obvious fade bet in the first weekend. Let’s pretend we didn’t see this.

20-10, 11-7 SEC (4-4 finish)

  • Assuming 0-4 or 1-3 Quadrant 1 record
  • Expected SEC finish: likely 4th, but a decent shot at 3rd
  • Average seed: 5.5
  • Chances of happening: 16.8% INCC, 18.3% Torvik, 13.1% KenPom

It says a lot about the quality of the SEC beyond the top three that even a 4-4, 11-7 SEC finish would still probably keep Tennessee at an SEC Tournament double-bye and maybe even the third overall seed. Still, this would be disappointing, even with Olivier Nkamhoua’s injury.

As of now, the 5.5 average seed would actually make Tennessee the highest-rated 6 seed, but the 6 seed line must be avoided at all costs. Since the field was expanded to 68 in 2011, 6 seeds are 19-21 in the first round and have just a 15% success rate in making the Sweet Sixteen

21-9, 12-6 SEC (5-3 finish)

  • Assuming no worse than one additional Quadrant 1 win, or two Quadrant 1 wins but one Quadrant 2-4 loss
  • Expected SEC finish: 3rd
  • Average seed: 4.6
  • Chances of happening: 20.5% INCC, 29.6% Torvik, 25.5% KenPom

This is where I make a special note than KenPom’s numbers give Tennessee a better shot at finishing 13-5 than 12-6, but the difference on both Torvik and KenPom is small. You’re looking at a coin-flip to either finish with 12 or 13 SEC wins, essentially. Given the Nkamhoua news, maybe that coin flip goes against you now. Who knows?

Anyway, this means you have defeated at least one and possibly two of State/Kentucky/Arkansas away/Auburn while either losing the rest of losing to one of Missouri/Arkansas home. It’s a decent outcome, but you’d essentially go into the SEC Tournament needing a win over likely 2-seed Kentucky to move from the 5 line to the 4. Once again, this is important; 5 seeds are 24-16 in the first round since the field expanded, while 4 seeds are 31-9 and have made the Sweet Sixteen twice as often (23 to 11).

22-8, 13-5 SEC (6-2 finish)

  • Assuming a 2-2 record against Quadrant 1 opponents or a 3-1 record with one Q2-Q4 loss
  • Expected SEC finish: likely 3rd, outside shot at 2nd
  • Average seed: 3.8
  • Chances of happening: 27.1% INCC, 27.7% Torvik, 29.9% KenPom

If you combine the odds of these two sites + KenPom, this is Tennessee’s most likely outcome. What an outcome it would be: multiple wins over the State/Kentucky/Arkansas away/Auburn grouping, which would push you to five Quadrant 1 wins. As long as you draw any of Arkansas/Florida/Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, you have an opportunity to add a sixth. That’s important.

In this scenario, assuming an SEC Tournament semifinal loss, Tennessee would close the season with an 11-9 record against Quadrant 1 + 2 opponents combined. Only 23 teams in 2018-19 played at least 20 games against Q1+2 competition and finished with a winning record. That, combined with Tennessee’s flawless record against Quadrant 3 & 4 opponents, would likely lock up no worse than a 4 seed.

There is one moderately realistic outcome that’s better, though.

23-7, 14-4 SEC (7-1 finish)

  • No worse than a 3-1 record against Quadrant 1 opponents
  • No losses to Q2-Q4 teams
  • Expected SEC finish: no worse than 3rd, with a tiebreaker with Kentucky determining 2nd
  • Average seed: 2.9
  • Chances of happening: 16.6% INCC, 13.7% Torvik, 20.4% (!) KenPom

Well, it’s not out of the question, but it’s less likely than 13-5, 12-6, and 11-7. Still, it’s worth exploring. Here’s the path I would deem most likely:

  1. Tennessee holds serve in three should-be-easy games: home Vanderbilt (88% to win, per KenPom), road Missouri (83%), road Georgia (91%). The odds of these three events happening are 66.5%.
  2. Tennessee beats Arkansas (78%) on Senior Day. Arkansas is good and getting better, but it’s a home game at a place Arkansas rarely wins. This plus the three gimmes: 51.9%. Still looking good.
  3. Tennessee beats Mississippi State (60%) tomorrow. 31.1%, which I swear to you is pretty good for a series of five independent events.
  4. Tennessee wins two of three against the following: Arkansas on the road (57%), #1 Auburn (55%), or #5 Kentucky (49%). If you treat these three as independent events, which they are, Tennessee has a 90% shot at getting one win. Against this trio specifically, Tennessee’s most likely outcome is 2-1. That’s if they proceed through the 31% likelihood of going against the other five teams unscathed.

You can see why this is unlikely, even though Tennessee is technically favored in seven of their final eight. (Because I am sure I’ll be asked, their average seed if they win out is 2.0, but again, that’s a 6% event. Can happen, very likely won’t.) Still: the path is there, and you don’t have to squint much at all to see it. If Tennessee can get a few lucky bounces here or there, 7-1 is 7-1.

3. As of today, what are Tennessee’s best and worst NCAA Tournament draws?

All seedings are based on two things:

  1. Where they are on the Bracket Matrix consensus as of right now;
  2. For seeds 12-16, if they have a >15% chance of making the NCAA Tournament, per Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast. Upsets happen in conference tournaments, and this is our way of getting them in a projected field. (I needed a cutoff point and 15% sounded like an accurate midpoint between 10-20%.)

Also, for the purposes of our…”study,” I guess, we’re assuming that Tennessee makes the NCAA Tournament as a 4 seed. It’s their most likely outcome on pretty much every site I read, and we can adjust that projection in a couple of weeks if needed. All numbers in the projections are via KenPom.

The GOAT Draw

  1. Auburn (SEC)
  2. Duke (ACC)
  3. Wisconsin (B1G)
  4. Tennessee (SEC)
  5. Ohio State (B1G)
  6. Texas (B12)
  7. Saint Mary’s (WCC)
  8. Boise State (MWC)
  9. Loyola Chicago (MVC)
  10. Seton Hall (BE)
  11. North Carolina (ACC)
  12. North Texas (CUSA)
  13. Hofstra (CAA)
  14. Liberty (A-Sun)
  15. Colgate (Patriot)
  16. Penn (Ivy)

“But Will,” you holler, “you put the #1 team in Tennessee’s bracket. Surely, this must be a mistake.” Shirley, I can be serious. Of the current #1 seeds – Auburn, Gonzaga, Purdue, and Kansas – it is Auburn who ranks lowest in a metrics average of the four, settling in around the eighth-best team in America. If you want to replace Auburn with Kansas, who is a spot or two ahead of them in some places, go for it. But I’m standing by this.

Auburn has very much earned their status as #1 in the AP Poll through a variety of great wins and timely cash-ins of luck. But the very best teams in college basketball rarely have to escape the bottom two teams in their conference by a combined three points. Sure, Auburn won both games…but did it actually make you feel better about their odds of somehow going undefeated in SEC play? I’m banking on two things here: a moderate reversal of fortune (i.e., Auburn loses 2-3 SEC games, loses in the SEC Tournament) and a genuine belief that even a really, really good team is capable of a bad night at the wrong time in March. This is the same team that’s nearly lost to South Florida, Saint Louis, Missouri, and Georgia. They’re not perfect.

This draw is complicated because, on one hand, it would be perfect if Tennessee drew literally the worst possible 1-16 seeds at every line. However, I have an alternate plan: what if Tennessee’s potential Round of 64, Round of 32, and Sweet Sixteen higher seeds are all below-average, but their bottom-bracket adversaries (seeds 6, 7, 10, 11) are all really good? If Tennessee made the Elite Eight and all they had to do was beat a 6, 7, 10, or 11 seed, you would take that gamble every single time, even if it didn’t work out. Therefore, you want really, really good lower seeds on the bottom half to knock out the 2 and 3 seeds.

Along with that, we’re making the 14, 15, and 16 seeds super-powered, or at least as much as I realistically can. (I debated doing the same with the 8/9 seeds, but it’s probably in Tennessee’s advantage to just draw an average 8 or 9 seed, not 2020-21 Loyola Chicago or something.) (Also, I would prefer a 12 seed that is good enough to be threatening but not scary enough to knock Tennessee out themselves. Learned my lesson last year.) The goal is this: Tennessee makes the Elite Eight while facing a 13, a 12, and a 9 seed. Worst case scenario: you draw the worst 13, worst 5, and worst 1 seed in the field.

What this produces is the following:

  • Baseline Tennessee NCAA Tournament odds, per Torvik: 80.7% to make Round of 32; 47.8% to make Sweet 16; 22.9% to make Elite Eight; 10.6% to make Final Four
  • GOAT Draw: 90.4% Round of 32; 64.7% Sweet 16; 33.6% Elite Eight; 18.2% Final Four

This draw almost doubles Tennessee’s odds of the first-ever Final Four run in school history. Not only is that nice, but check out the rest of this bracket. The 3 seed is only 27% likely to make the Sweet Sixteen. The 2 seed has just a 44% shot to see the Elite Eight. Your second and third most-likely draws from the bottom half of the bracket are the 6 and 7 seeds. If I, today, told you Tennessee could have a one-in-three chance to make the Elite Eight…you’d take that, right? That’s why this is the GOAT Draw.

The Poop Draw

  1. Gonzaga (WCC)
  2. Arizona (Pac-12)
  3. Houston (American)
  4. Tennessee (SEC)
  5. Texas (Big 12)
  6. Iowa State (Big 12)
  7. Indiana (B1G)
  8. Boise State (MWC)
  9. Davidson (Atlantic 10)
  10. Miami (FL) (ACC)
  11. Wake Forest (ACC)
  12. UAB (Conference USA)
  13. Furman (Southern)
  14. Navy (Patriot)
  15. Cleveland State (Horizon)
  16. Nicholls State (Southland)

A truly funny and terrible thing is that this draw actually gives you a better shot to exit the first round and an equal shot to make the Sweet Sixteen as the baseline. This is because the baseline has a lot of uncertainty involved and considers pretty much anything from a 2 to 6 seed for Tennessee to at least be mildly possible.

For this, we’re giving Tennessee a true murderer’s row to get through. If you can escape Furman – the highest rated potential 13 seed in KenPom at #67 – you’re either rewarded with a Texas team you just lost to a week ago or a UAB team that’s 38th in KenPom. Escape that grueling weekend? Congrats. Your reward, in 87% of simulations, is #1 Gonzaga. If you somehow pull off the upset of a lifetime, your next reward is either #2 Arizona or #4 Houston.

My hope with this draw is to illustrate what a true Selection Hell looks like: Tennessee gets the worst possible 1-3 and 5 seeds, gets zero help from the 6-11 seeds, then proceeds to draw the toughest 12 and 13. It’s an absolute nightmare…and yet: that absolute nightmare still results in a Sweet Sixteen almost half the time. I guess it could be worse!

A summary of what has been learned so far:

  • Tennessee will most likely be a 3, 4, or 5 seed.
  • Their most likely final SEC record (per KenPom) is 13-5, closely followed by 12-6, 14-4, then 11-7.
  • Hope you don’t draw Furman or UAB.
  • Hope your enemy seed draws Furman or UAB.
  • Hope you get a bad 1 seed or your 1 seed draws Dream Killer Loyola Chicago.

More to come soon.

One thought on “2021-22 Bracketology, Vol. 1: where Tennessee stands, how they could rise/fall, and best/worst NCAA Tournament draws

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