Tennessee Vols Earning Potential No. 1 Seed
by Trevor Whenham - 02/27/2008
Tennessee had the perfect situation on Saturday night - a nationally televised game against a hated in-state rival with the No. 1 ranking in the country on the line. They took advantage of it as well as they possibly could have. Memphis, the home team, and undefeated No. 1 team to boot, was favored by six points or more, but Tennessee was able to keep it close in the first half and pull away late as the Tigers went ice cold with their shooting. With the win, the Volunteers became, like Memphis before them, the unanimous top team in the country. There is little question that they deserve that position. The question is how well that ranking sets them up down the stretch of the season, into the SEC tournament, and, by far most importantly, into the NCAA Tournament. Here's a look at the factors that will go into determining how well the dream season finishes off.
Chris Lofton - Lofton is the best player on the team, and one of the best players in the country. That's no small feat for an undersized guard. One of the bigger disappointments of the first half of the season was that Lofton wasn't nearly as good as he had been last year. Just how far from his best he was is almost unbelievable - He's playing much better recently, yet his points average is still down more than five points per game from last year, and his field goal percentage is more than eight points worse. The improvement Lofton has shown in the last five weeks or so is impressive. He has met or exceeded his scoring average in eight of the last 11 games. He'd only done that in six of the first 17 games. As well, his rebounds are up and his assists have been more consistent.
What's most notable about Lofton, though, is how the team responds when he isn't at his best. Last year, an off game for Lofton was an off game for the team. Now the team has learned to make up for him when he struggles. Against Memphis he only had seven points, and he was almost invisible in the first half, yet they were still able to win. The Vols have covered each of the last three times Lofton has had a sub-par performance. That's probably the biggest difference with this team, and the biggest asset going down the road - they don't rely on Lofton. That means that a player that brilliant can essentially be an addition instead of a necessity. That makes them tough to beat, and especially so when the player is playing so well.
Bruce Pearl - Pearl is perhaps the most colorful coach at a major program these days. That keeps things entertaining. It might get a bit obnoxious if he was just an average coach, but the thing is that he is incredibly good, and he wins everywhere he goes, so it is easy to put up with some of his antics. He learned his chops under Tom Davis at Iowa, and then he went to Southern Indiana and stayed long enough to win a Division II National Championship. In four seasons at UW-Milwaukee he won 86 games, made the tournament twice, and made the Sweet 16 once. His first days at Tennessee were rough - recruits Jamont Gordon and Tyler Smith de-committed upon his arrival. It didn't matter. The team was 14-17 the year before he arrived, but in his first year they beat eventual national champions Florida twice, made it as high as 10th in the country, earned a No. 2 seed, and won a tournament game. Last year he made the Sweet 16, and he won the third most games in program history. Now he is at the top of the heap.
The point is this - the guy can really, really coach. He gets an amazing amount of commitment from his teams, and he keeps them focused and prepared. Teams like Duke and UNC win consistently in large part because of their coaching. Tennessee is unquestionably entering that same realm. Pearl is the best argument there is to believe that this team is going to earn their No. 1 seed and be an absolute menace once they do.
Conference - If there is a reason to be concerned about the Vols, this is it. The SEC just isn't very good this year. With the exception of Vanderbilt there isn't an eye-opening team, and even the Commodores have lost more conference games than I would like. Tennessee has only lost once - to a perplexing but at times challenging Kentucky - but that doesn't earn them much credit. It's a bit of a no-win situation for the Vols - they don't get any credit for winning the games they should win, but they would have faced a world of criticism if they had lost more than one. Besides Vandy and maybe Kentucky (depending upon which team shows up) this team should go into the tournament well removed from a real challenge. Add that to the fact that their No. 1 seed will mean that a top level opponent will likely be a week away from the start of the tournament, and there could potentially be a problem - almost a month between tough games. I think that Pearl will keep his team in form, but it's not an easy task. That will especially be true if the team still has their No. 1 ranking, because their relative inactivity will be combined with the weight of huge expectations.
The Conclusion - At Bodog the Vols are tied for the fifth lowest odds to win it all at 7/1. In relative terms, then, these guys present some value in my eyes - I don't believe that there are four teams more likely to win it all than Tennessee. They have flaws, like an inside presence that creates fear, but every other elite team has flaws that would be fatal in a perfect world, too.