March 12, 2008
Planting the seed for No. 1
The buzz this week, somewhat inexplicably, has been the validity of Tennessee's stake to a No. 1 seed when the NCAA Tournament pairings are unveiled on Selection Sunday.
Looking at the figures that most of us believe are key criteria for the super-secret, 16-person selection committee, the more reasonable conjecture among national pundits should be "How can Tennessee NOT be a No. 1 seed?"
Whether it's CollegeRPI.com or Walt Disney's version of the rankings, the Vols have a comfortable and commanding lead: .0139 over second-place North Carolina in the former; .0132 over the Tar Heels in the latter. And Roy's Boys simply boast the best RPI of a second-place team in 15 years, .6722. Memphis, at .6664, holds the best third-place figure in 15 years.
So Chris Lofton shooting a clutch 3-pointer. Josh Beckett pitching a pivotal playoff game (or John Smoltz from the mid-1990s). Tiger Woods lining up a clinching, 20-foot putt wearing his Sunday red. John Daly lining up a raucous party.
The common bond? They're all no-brainers. The fourth-ranked Vols' credentials this season, regardless of what happens this weekend in Atlanta, should mandate a top seed, presumably in the East, South or Midwest Regional.
Though wholly focused on the SEC Tournament and Friday's quarterfinal contest against the LSU-South Carolina winner, UT coach Bruce Pearl earlier this week extolled the virtues of his team.
"Take the name off the record and just examine the record, road wins, strength of schedule, RPI," said Pearl, one of four Naismith Award finalists. "We're a pretty strong contender. Does it bother me (that UT might be battling name recognition)? I don't get bothered very often by experts and opinions.
"I don't know if we're one of the top four teams in the country, but I guarantee you we deserve the ranking. Look at the schedule and look at our record. If you go about business like they ask you to go about your business, and go on the road and win, with the exception of North Carolina, we're right there with anybody else in country."
Pearl, of course, is correct. There are more, many more numbers. For example:
- Tennessee's regular-season ending .6861 RPI is the single-highest finish since Duke (.6934) in 1999, when the Blue Devils were awarded the No. 1 overall seed.
- The RPI numbers of that Duke and this Tennessee team represent the best overall figures since 1994.
- 11 of the 14 teams that closed the season atop the RPI since 1994 received a top seed. North Carolina (1995) and Cincinnati (2000) received 2s while Kansas (2005) was tagged with a No. 3 after losing six regular-season games.
- Ignore RPI for a moment and examine the Strength of Schedule argument. Tennessee is No. 1 there, according to CollegeRPI, with a .20 lead. The Worldwide Leader has the Vols' slate No. 2, good enough for a .16 edge over UNC, their nearest competitor in both rankings. Kansas, which is believed to be a candidate for a top seed, has an SOS ranking of 63 on the most recent CollegeRPI report and sits down another 19 spots in Joe Lunardi's ESPN version.
"We might be the No. 1 seed in the country, but to answer that question in that way I would say I think we have to win the SEC Tournament," Pearl said. "With the exception of North Carolina, right now there's no doubt we're a No. 1 seed. The more we win, the better position we put ourselves in. ... Right now, I would only put North Carolina ahead of us. Not that we're better. It's just that our record, strength of schedule and RPI are there."
It was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, who popularized the notion that there are "Lies, damned lies and statistics."
Yes, numbers and statistics can often be manipulated to support an argument.
But anyone who examines Tennessee's case for a No. 1 seed and doesn't see an easy decision just might be lying to himself.
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