Raise your hand if you predicted the selection committee would tab the Tennessee Lady Vols as a No. 5 seed.
If you raised your hand, you’re probably a liar.
After yet another disappointing season for women’s basketball’s premium brand, bracketologists across the globe slotted the Lady Vols as a No. 7 seed in their March Madness projections.
Oh, how the turntables.
Essentially, the committee rewarded Tennessee on the strength of its victories rather than the bewildering nature of its defeats. A 19-11 record looks pedestrian on paper, but six of those wins are against a pair of No. 1 seeds (Notre Dame and South Carolina), a pair of No. 2 seeds (Mississippi State and Stanford) and a couple of tough SEC foes in Missouri and Kentucky.
Unfortunately for the Lady Vols, the lone No. 1 seed they lost to this season headlines their bracket, as well as a familiar conference counterpart as the No. 2 seed and arguably the nation’s most lethal offensive unit at the No. 3 slot.
Here’s how Tennessee’s roadmap to Dallas is laid out.
First Round Date with Dayton
The last time the Lady Vols were a No. 5 seed, they were bounced in the opening round for the first time in program history. Although the chances of a first-round exit are highly unlikely, Tennessee shouldn’t take the Dayton Flyers lightly.
Dayton isn’t an offensive force, but can turn a game ugly with its defense, the perfect formula against a Lady Vol offense that relies heavily on the performance of three players. If the Flyers commit two players in the post to slowing down Mercedes Russell, then Diamond DeShields and Jaime Nared have to deliver the goods. As crazy as it sounds, that’s what Dayton should want. DeShields and Nared have both struggled from the floor at various points this season. If Tennessee gets the efficient version of both, then the game will be a cakewalk. If DeShields resorts to sporadic shooting and Nared can’t find her stroke, then the Flyers have a real shot at pulling off the upset.
Should the Lady Vols scoot past Dayton, they’re likely to face the No. 4 seed Louisville Cardinals in the second round.
Louisville is a particularly tough matchup because of Asia Durr, who averaged more than 18 points and shot 40 percent from beyond the arc during the regular season. If Durr is hot from outside, she’ll force Tennessee to match her shot-for-shot, and of all the things the Lady Vols are, a consistent outside shooting team isn’t one of them.
The Cardinals are also a much deeper and more complete team. It’s frankly a nightmare scenario for the orange and white, as they not only have to outlast the strongest No. 4 seed in the tournament, but also have to do so in Louisville.
The downside to Tennessee’s status as a No. 5 seed is its position in the bracket. Had the Lady Vols received their expected No. 7 seeding, Tennessee’s path to the Elite Eight would’ve been manageable. Instead, should the Lady Vols top the Cardinals in the Round of 32, they’ll likely have a not-so-Sweet 16 matchup with the top-seeded Baylor Bears.
Baylor destroyed Tennessee back toward the beginning of the season in early December. The Bears won by 22 points, but led by as many as 35 in their virtuoso performance at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Lady Vols did go on to defeat Notre Dame and South Carolina, but neither one of those teams presents the challenges that Baylor does. For every Tennessee strength, the Bears are simply stronger in the same area. Plus, their bench is loaded with players who are just as potent as Tennessee’s starting five.
This is the furthest down the road to the Final Four the Lady Vols will likely get, but in 2013, nobody gave No. 4 seeded Louisville a chance over mighty Baylor and the Cardinals managed to pull off the upset.
The Elite Eight blues
Head coach Holly Warlick has guided Tennessee to three Elite Eight appearances in four seasons. Each time, the Lady Vols fell short of reaching the program’s first Final Four since 2008.
Should seeding hold in the opening two rounds of the region’s bottom half, Tennessee will probably either face the No. 2 seed Mississippi State Bulldogs or No. 3 seed Washington Huskies.
Tennessee split its two regular season matchups with Mississippi State, which included an 18-point domination of the Bulldogs in Starkville during the regular season finale. Of the two options, this is the squad the Lady Vols have the best chance of ending their Elite Eight blues against, because Mississippi State is over-seeded.
The Bulldogs’ non-conference schedule was one of the softest for a major program in the country. They also went 0-2 against South Carolina and played their worst basketball at the end of the season. More importantly, they don’t have a post player who can slow down Russell effectively. As impressive as Mississippi State is, Tennessee is a better team.
Washington, on the other hand, is the team nobody should want to face. It’s largely because of Kelsey Plum, who averaged a nation-leading 31.3 points per game and shot 53 percent from the floor, including 43 percent from 3-point range.
The Huskies’ offensive firepower is often too much for opposing teams to handle. Tennessee isn’t an exception to that rule.
What I think will happen
The Lady Vols won’t reach the Elite Eight with Baylor on their side of the bracket. In fact, Tennessee won’t even face Baylor. After defeating Dayton in their first-round matchup, the Lady Vols will fall to Louisville in the round of 32.
Edited by Quinn Pilkey
Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics