What was the best day of your life? Yeah, I know, some of you are married, so that counts. Maybe the first time you had a Dr. Pepper was the best day ever. Perhaps it was the first time you went to a different country. I don’t know, I’ve been to Canada for an hour and that’s it. Hey, maybe you had a good sandwich once. I did the other day, with turkey, swiss, and a lot of the Boar’s Head spicy mustard.
Anyway, the best day of my life was when I got the Playstation 2 at age 7 or 8. This places me in the Very Young category among the people reading this, but roll with it. I remember getting Madden NFL 2002 and Gran Turismo 3 game as my first package, along with getting NCAA Football 2002 soon after. You could get all of these at the Toys ‘R’ Us in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for a decent price. I loved all these games dearly. But the best one was NCAA Final Four 2002, a game that everyone has forgotten and that, according to this gameplay video, was terrible. It was the only college basketball game they had at Toys ‘R’ Us, though, so I loved it.
The cool thing about Final Four was the slow build-up to the NCAA Tournament. Prior to doing this nerd stuff on most days of my life, I participated in it through Final Four’s Bubble Watch, which would debut in-game as the season turned to February. There, you could begin to take stock of what teams would be in that season’s NCAA Tournament. This was at least three years before I read Jerry Palm’s Bubble Watch, meaning that my grandfather was the main recipient of my “what is RPI” question.
Anyway, that’s a 300-word way of saying I am predetermined from third grade to acknowledge February 1 as the official start date of bracketology discussion. Tennessee’s season from heaven has made me peek at a few brackets here and there, but by large, I didn’t begin the process of thinking about it until this past weekend. The good news is that this has not stopped me from reading KenPom, Bart Torvik, and Haslametrics every day. Given these qualifications, I feel pretty confident in presenting you with what could be a popular creation: Tennessee’s Perfect Bracket.
Here’s the prerequisites for the TPB:
- A team must have at least a 15% chance of achieving the seed line they’re tied to, per Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast.
- The seed line they’re tied to must be one of the three most likely seed lines they’ll receive.
- For lower-end teams, the team must have at least a 30% chance of making the NCAA Tournament, per Torvik.
- You are not allowed to play an out-of-conference foe until at least the Round of 32, and even then, rematches are rare until the Sweet Sixteen.
- Multiple strategies are in play. While Tennessee would like to play the worst possible 8/9, 4/5, and 2/3 opponents, they would likely be thrilled if the 2-5 seeds played particularly difficult first and second round opponents. A bracket that blows up but leaves Tennessee intact is The Electric Nugget.
- We’re allowing for two key scenarios here: Tennessee gets a 1 seed (51.9%, per Torvik) or a 2 (37.9%). Because there’s just a 10.3% chance they get something lower, we’re okay leaving that off the consideration pile for the moment.
- We’re ensuring Tennessee does not play an SEC opponent until the Elite Eight.
Keep in mind that there’s around a 0.01% chance this full bracket comes to fruition, but you can say the same for any of Joe Lunardi’s brackets (speaking of a guy who’s not very good at his job) or Jerry Palm’s. Plus, if all 16+ of the teams listed below make the Field of 68, Tennessee’s likely to draw at least a couple of them. You might as well familiarize yourself with them on the earliest date possible.
This is presented in ascending seed order, from 1 to 16. Onward! Your ideal 1 seed draw, in the event of receiving a 2 seed, is…
1 Seed (If 2 Seed): Michigan
Because the top-end of college basketball is Extremely Good this year – what gets Tennessee to 5th in KenPom this year would’ve had them less than a quarter of a point away from 2nd last year – the pickings are slim. The closest thing we’ve got to a smart pick here is Michigan, who’s running out a 1.03 PPP in Big Ten play through ten games and ranks 42nd in offense. They’re the #1 defense in America and are 20-1, however. Not easy! Regardless: you’d take this over Virginia, Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga, and Kentucky.
2 Seed (If 1 Seed): North Carolina
Again, slim pickings. North Carolina is an excellent team with two blowout losses to other excellent teams (Michigan and Louisville, the latter of which they just avenged). They beat Virginia Tech, a likely 3/4 seed, by 21. They beat Gonzaga by 13. They’re very good. Technically, Kentucky would be the slightly less tough game. My decision here is that bracket makers probably wouldn’t want Tennessee-Kentucky IV, assuming the two best SEC teams play each other for the conference title. Plus, you can fall back on the knowledge that UNC’s had worse games than anything Tennessee has thrown out to date. And that Roy Williams is only 2 for 6 in making the Final Four as a 2 seed.
3 Seed: Kansas
Now we’re getting to the meat. Kansas may yet play themselves out of this line after playing themselves out of the 2 line temporarily. Torvik says they’ve played at the level of a 4/5 seed for the last month-plus, which includes two Azubuike games. They’re 17-5 and 6-3 in the Big 12, which is fine, but an 8-2 record in games decided by 5 points or fewer really skews the narrative. As such, this no-longer-all-that-good team went over a month between having a double-digit margin of victory and starts every game with a 6’5″ freshman at power forward. Tennessee should’ve beaten them the first time; they’d be favored the second.
4 Seed: Marquette
You should be begging The Powers That Be to put Marquette in Tennessee’s bracket. Markus Howard, a POY candidate in most other years, is dragging a profoundly incomplete Marquette team across the finish line. The Golden Eagles have a negative turnover margin at -1.5 per game, are 5-3 in games where they’ve trailed for the majority of the game (expected record here: 2-6 or 3-5), and have given up 1.1 PPP or more on defense five times. They’re massively reliant on hitting threes and free throws, neither of which is ideal for a small-sample tournament with unfamiliar courts and neutral referees that, on average, call fewer fouls per game. You can slot them anywhere from 3 to 5 here and feel happy.
5 Seed: Nevada
Admittedly, slotting in Nevada at the 5 looks fishy, considering KenPom thinks they’d be a legit 4/5 seed. Torvik’s more skeptical, and I side with him. Nevada’s 4-0 in close games, which is fine, but needed to overcome double-digit deficits to beat Arizona State and Grand Canyon, trailed for 26 minutes against Air Force, and struggled with Akron for the full 40 minutes. Oh, and there’s the matter of a 27 point loss to a terrible New Mexico team. I would be surprised if Nevada enters the Tournament with more than two or three losses, but it’s a mediocre rebounding team that allows a lot of three-point attempts and doesn’t force many turnovers. The worst-case scenario here is that they make it to the Sweet Sixteen, where Tennessee would be around 6-point favorites.
6 Seed: Florida State
(NOTE: The original version of this post featured Mississippi State, but they have surpassed FSU on both sites.) Ideal scenario here: you get a 4-4 ACC team that’s lost to both Pittsburgh and Boston College. This team struggles with offensive turnovers, fouls a lot, and is a mediocre shooting team. Now give them a fun 11 seed to deal with. Sounds good!
7 Seed (If 1 Seed): Auburn
7 Seed (If 2 Seed): Kansas State
This is where what you want depends on what you draw. If it’s a 1 seed, you want your 2 seed to have the toughest road possible to the Elite Eight. If you’re the 2 seed, you want as light a road as you can imagine. Auburn is 2-4 in the SEC and hasn’t rebounded on defense since February 2018, but what they’re capable of offensively can be matched by very few opponents when they’re on. Conversely, Kansas State is the worst offense I’ve watched all season, pound-for-pound. They got housed by an awful Texas A&M team last Saturday. If Tennessee falls to a 2, they’d kill for KSU.
8 Seed: Ohio State
9 Seed: TCU
Taking these together. Because 1 seeds are so proficient in making the Sweet Sixteen – 116 of 136 in the 64/68-team eras have made it, or 85.3% – I didn’t bother in finding the ultimate 8/9 seed to take down Michigan. The problem mostly lies in that there’s no standout 8/9 seed as of now. It’s not at all like drawing Wisconsin as the 8 in 2016-17 (entered as a top 20 team) or Kentucky in 2013-14 (entered #17). You’d need a Buffalo or Auburn to fall to the 8/9 game for me to have serious interest here. Anyway, Tennessee would be about 80% likely to beat either team.
10 Seed (If 1 Seed): Washington
10 Seed (If 2 Seed): St. John’s
Again, depends on your draw. Neither of these teams are exceptional, but Washington is the best of an awful Pac-12 crop and has a Top 25 defense. They’d make UNC sweat for 30 minutes, if I had to guess. Tennessee, in the 2 spot, would love to draw St. John’s. It’s a 16-5 team that’s 4-5 in the Big East and got rocked at home by DePaul and Georgetown.
11 Seed: Lipscomb
THE BISON(S)! This is very easily the best team in Lipscomb school history. Pomeroy projects a 15-1 finish in conference play for them with multiple Tier 1 wins. Torvik says they’d be in the Tournament with a 16-0 finish and an Atlantic Sun Tournament title game loss; a 15-1 finish puts them in the First Four, which I’d take to mean them being out. Either way, it’s the second-best team in Tennessee. Placing them against an underwhelming 6 seed and letting them do as much damage as they please is ideal.
12 Seed: VCU
Initially, this was Murray State, which I would’ve loved. Ja Morant vs. the 4/5 seeds in your bracket is about as ideal as it gets. Unfortunately, it appears Mr. Morant is not invincible, and Murray has now lost multiple OVC games by double-digits. It’s probably about a 35-40% likelihood they even make the tournament. Consider Mike Rhoades and VCU instead: a preseason sub-100 team that has steadily risen throughout the year, has a road win at Texas, and has a top-10 defense nationally. An obvious issue is that their offense is #226 in KenPom. BUT! Their most similar compatriot is 2011 Florida State, a 10 seed that made the Sweet Sixteen…and lost to VCU.
13 Seed: New Mexico State
Yeah, I know, they haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1993 and they’ve lost 11 straight in March. But eventually if they keep showing up with Top 100 KenPom teams they’re going to win one. Torvik suggests that in the last eight trips alone they should’ve gone 2-6 in the Round of 64. Eventually, it’ll regress to the mean one day and they’ll finally win a game. Match them up with a dumb Marquette team and I really like their odds.
14 Seed: South Dakota State
Mike Daum, who will finish his career as a 3,000-point scorer, keeps this team in a game against everyone in the field. They’ve played just three KenPom Top 100 teams this year, but they went 1-2 and never let Nevada lead by more than eight. They’re bad defensively, but I don’t know what else you’re looking for in a 14 seed.
15 Seed (If 1 Seed): Wright State
15 Seed (If 2 Seed): Texas Southern
The 15 seed line looks to be pretty brutal this year. No team with a 10% chance or greater of making the field at the 15 line comes in at higher than 142nd in KenPom, and there’s no obviously bad 2 seed candidate this year, barring a Marquette/Kansas/Houston rise. In years’ past, you at least had #123 Middle Tennessee, #124 Florida Gulf Coast, and #82 Lehigh (the second-highest ranked 15 seed in KenPom history, behind #80 Winthrop in 2006). A 15 seed winning this year would be a Norfolk State/Hampton-type deal where the 2 seed either has the offensive game from Hell or the defensive game from Hell. Tennessee would have a 95-98% chance against both teams.
16 Seed (If 1 Seed): Norfolk State
16 Seed (If 2 Seed): Rider
This one would matter a little, actually. Because the sample size is, literally, one team, there’s no rhyme or reason to figuring out how a 16 seed beats a 1. However, the less dangerous opponent you have to play as a 1, the better. In particular, you’d prefer Tennessee to draw Play-In Winner, whoever that may be. If Tennessee’s the 2, root for the 1 to draw Rider, a team that led UCF for 16 minutes and played 12/13 seed Hofstra tight for 36. It’s not much, but it is something.
Per Torvik’s Tourney Simulator, this increases Tennessee’s standard odds of a Final Four from 28.2% to 38.7% if they’re a 1 seed. 1 seeds with a 36% or greater shot at the Final Four since 2000 are 25 for 35 in reaching the Final Four, per Torvik’s numbers. Seems good! (31 of 35 made the Sweet Sixteen, and 29 of 35 the Elite Eight.) Rearrange this bracket to be the premium outcome for Tennessee as a 2 seed and Tennessee’s odds rise from 28.2% to 35.5%. Not as high, obviously, but Tennessee would have the best odds of any team in their bracket to make the Final Four. There’s only nine 2 seeds in the Torvik database to enter the NCAAT with 33% odds or better of a Final Four; six of them have made it. Most prominently, all made it to at least the Sweet Sixteen.
The best part of the bracket, to me, is the 17.1% chance your 3-6 seeds make it to the Round of 32 unscathed. Florida State would have around a 58% shot of beating Lipscomb, while Marquette (65%) would be in serious 4 seed danger against New Mexico State. Even better is the 10.5% chance that the 2-4 seeds all make it to the Sweet Sixteen. Tennessee (77%) would likely be safe, and North Carolina (62%) would have good odds, but it would be likely that both Kansas (52%) and especially Marquette (32%) fall before the Sweet Sixteen than not. Imagine, if you will, 1 seed Tennessee playing 12 seed VCU for the Elite Eight while North Carolina and Kansas battle each other to death.
Ultimately, this is, like all bracketology, a fun, meaningless exercise. But at least you waited until February to see it, right? Over the next few weeks, we’ll continue familiarizing ourselves with these teams and rooting for them to end up in Tennessee’s bracket. Or, if they make a strong upwards run (or downward for some), we’ll try and forget about them. Either way, enjoy your new New Mexico State and VCU fandom.