When you strip the Vols down to naked numbers, though, they look very much like the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. After defeating previously unbeaten Memphis, they sat atop the RPI standings and all of the polls, owners of nine top 50 victories. They are the only Southeastern Conference team to beat Mississippi State in Starkville, the only team to beat Xavier at the Cintas Center and the only team to beat Memphis anywhere on the planet.
This development shocks no one more than the Vols themselves. "To be honest with you, I knew we were going to have a chance to be good," coach Bruce Pearl says. "But, no, I didn't see us getting to No. 1."
Tennessee became the pole-sitter in the race for the tournament's four top seeds with a rousing victory in one of the most intense regular-season games of this or any year -- on the road over Memphis. The result did not evict the Tigers from the chase, but it did rearrange the order of those in pursuit:
The Tigers' claim that preserving their undefeated record wasn't burdensome appeared hollow as Tennessee easily conned them into firing 27 shots from beyond the 3-point line; they made only eight. While cruising to another Conference USA title, which would assure them a No. 1 seed, they ought to study the box score from UCLA's 1995 NCAA championship victory over Arkansas: The Bruins were 33-of-68 from the field that night but shot only seven 3-pointers. If Memphis continues to live at the 3-point line, its title hopes will die there.
The Longhorns have lost more games than the other contenders, but they also own victories over three other teams in the pool: Tennessee, UCLA and Kansas. No one has matched that list of victims, and no one can before Selection Sunday. If the Longhorns maintain their lead in the Big 12, they'll be hard to deny.
The Bruins' slumping offense hasn't knocked them out of first place in the Pac-10, and no other team on this list is facing a steadier diet of challenging opponents. If they remain the best team in the best league, the West should be theirs.
Though it once seemed automatic that the winner of the ACC would be ticketed as the East's No. 1, Tennessee's emergence, coupled with the slight decline of the Heels and Blue Devils, should put the Vols on the road to Charlotte. Whichever ACC power emerges will need help to get back in position for a top seed.
The Jayhawks' struggles on the Big 12 road, along with their lack of marquee victories outside the league, have imperiled what once seemed the easiest course for any elite team. Kansas remains the most complete team in the nation, but it's nowhere near the most accomplished.
Although there is no shortage of loud analysis suggesting all this rumination over seeds is a waste of energy, there must be value in reaching that top status. Of the past 15 NCAA champions, 10 were No. 1 seeds. There would appear to be only a sliver of difference between a No. 1 and No. 2, but only two champions came from the second seed line in that same period.
Tennessee was a No. 2 when it lost in the second round two years ago, but this team owns a much greater sense of potential. The Vols cover for their inadequacies with intensity few teams can match and an opportunistic offense that constantly reinvents itself.
If the Vols escape the final weeks of SEC play relatively unharmed, they can become a No. 1 seed for the first time in history. Reaching this position might be habitual for some other contenders, but, says power forward Wayne Chism, "We're going to do something at Tennessee nobody's ever done."
Sure looks like it.
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