March is a month the Lady Vols historically thrive in.
Starting in the 1980s, Tennessee began treating the month like a simple morning routine: Win the SEC Tournament, receive a top seed and pummel its opponents en route to the Final Four.
As a result, the Lady Vols left little room for the hysteria of March Madness to take shape. Its dominance over women’s college basketball’s most important month helped establish the sport’s first dynasty. From 1987-2008, the Lady Vols appeared in the Final Four 15 times times and won eight championships, good enough to turn them into the gold standard.
Oh, how the turn tables.
Since its last championship in 2008, Tennessee has failed to recapture the magic. To make matters worse, the present-day version of the Lady Vols are a head-scratching affair; a team that can overcome a double-digit deficit to topple the mighty Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but also immediately follow such an invigorating win by blowing an 19-point lead to Auburn in an 18-point loss.
The peaks and valleys sure make for an entertaining season, but entertainment doesn’t equate to seeding. In the end, due to its puzzling combination of resume-boosting wins and mind-numbing losses, Tennessee’s stature atop regions will continue its downward trend.
The No. 1 seeds are only reserved for the creme de la creme. Interestingly enough, the Lady Vols faced three of the projected No. 1 seeds (UConn, Baylor, South Carolina and Notre Dame) this season, going 2-1 in those games. Tennessee ended its rivalry with UConn a decade ago and there’s little doubt the Huskies would have their way with the short-handed Lady Vols. Baylor stormed into Thompson-Boling Arena in early December and eased its way to a 22-point victory. The game wasn’t that close, as the Bears led by as many as 35 at one point.
Matchups against Notre Dame and South Carolina appeared to be forgone conclusions, but in typical Tennessee fashion, the Lady Vols flexed their Jekyll-and-Hyde muscle and temporarily sent the Fire Holly Train off the tracks. Against the Fighting Irish at home, Tennessee rallied against the preseason No. 1 team in the second half, overcoming a double-digit deficit and winning 71-69, thanks to a game-winning shot courtesy of Jordan Reynolds in the waning seconds. A few weeks later, Tennessee traveled to Columbia and upset the newly crowned queens of the SEC, 76-74.
Obviously, the Lady Vols have a zero percent chance of earning a top seed after a 19-11 regular season. Tennessee recorded a pair of wins over projected No. 2 seeds (Mississippi State and Stanford), but don’t expect a handout from the committee after the Lady Vols’ one-and-done performance in the SEC Tournament.
A No. 3 seed? Duke, Florida State, Texas and Washington would beg to differ.
A No. 4 seed? Maybe. Tennessee defeated Kentucky, but also lost to Penn State, Virginia Tech, Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama twice. That collection of mediocrity is watching the tournament from their couches.
A No. 5 seed? Warmer. NC State’s resume is stacked (wins over Notre Dame, Florida State, Duke and Louisville). Miami’s isn’t as impressive, but wins over Ohio State, Florida State and NC State still hold water for the Hurricanes.
A No. 6 seed? We’re getting scorching hot now. Tennessee split between Missouri and Texas A&M, beating the former and losing to the latter. Overall, both teams have had more consistent seasons. Same goes for Kansas State and Syracuse.
A No. 7 seed? Now we’re talking. This is the group the Lady Vols fit perfectly in. Tennessee, West Virginia, Marquette and Arizona State have all had similar seasons. A few impressive wins here or there, but too many losses against non-NCAA Tournament teams to warrant a higher seeding.
Placing the Lady Vols in this group is an unfortunate familiar eye soar for the Tennessee faithful. Last season, Holly Warlick’s crew was tabbed as a No. 7 seed, the lowest mark in program history.
Regardless, the expectations won’t change. With eight championship banners hanging at Thompson-Boling Arena and arguably the most transcendent legacy in all of college athletics established by the late Pat Summitt, it’s Final Four or bust for Tennessee.
Edited by Robert Hughes
Featured image by Alison P. McNabb, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics