Was it a slight?
Most assuredly it is, if you weigh UT’s No. 1 RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) rating and No. 1 strength of schedule ranking. After all this was a yardstick the NCAA selection committee designed and has religiously deployed over the years to help reduce the bias of perception and regional prejudice. In the past if a team had a complaint about where it is seeded, the selection committee merely had to refer it to the fairness formula aka the RPI. In a case of role reversal it’s Bruce Pearl who is referring the NCAA to its own system and asking: what gives?
Adding insult to injury Tennessee not only didn’t receive one of four top seeds, it was regarded as the fourth best No. 2 seed. It’s the type of seed that could yield bitter fruit and leave a bad taste in the Vols’ mouths. On the other hand such seeds might just produce a hardwood harvest.
Let’s face it. Tennessee hasn’t been the same team since its victory over Memphis and two-day stay in the No. 1 spot atop the major polls. Clearly the Vols had an arduous task playing what is arguably their four most heated rivals — Memphis, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Florida — in consecutive games. They won three of the four contests which were all decided by three points or less. Considering three of the four games were played on the road it was an unprecedented and proud achievement which netted the outright conference title and brought the glare of the national spotlight on the program.
Along with a glut of attention and recognition the Vols’ long climb to the top rung also brought respect. In the process it took away a strong motivation. No longer could UT rally around the “No Respect” banner. Suddenly they were the hunted instead of the hunter. Higher expectations created greater pressure as a UT team that rose from ashes under Pearl was now feeling the heat.
The transformation was abrupt and nothing in the Vols’ recent past could have prepared them for the difference. They continued to play hard but didn’t seem to have the same energy level as they did before the upset at Memphis. They appeared to be pressing more on offense and were no longer dominating on defense. They may have also become accustomed to winning close games and therefore didn’t feel the urgency to parlay advantages into quick knockouts.
The SEC Tournament reflected that reality as the Vols gave up an average of 90 points in two games and blew a nine-point lead in the second half against Arkansas as well as a double-digit cushion against South Carolina. They were getting beat down court and giving up more points on their press than they were generating. The Razorbacks dominate the boards, as the Vols repeatedly failed to do something as fundamental as boxing out despite playing man defense exclusively.
Tennessee’s style of play depends on a high level of emotional intensity. Sometimes that’s difficult to tap into when you’re playing teams you’ve already beaten by double figures two and three times. (For instance: the Vols margin of victory over S.C. and Arkansas was 26 points in three games prior to the tournament.) Opponents also gain ground when playing UT multiple times because of the unique scramble man the Vols employ.
The NCAA represents a fresh start against teams they haven’t played before. A season of high goals and amazing accomplishments is now reduced to a simple mantra of survive and advance. It’s all been about reaching this point in the second season and now the focus is sharp.
In truth there’s really not much of a difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in terms of subsequent success. However the NCAA has removed the yoke of expectations that has weighed UT down the last three weeks. The selection committee sowed the seed of discontent when it placed the Vols behind North Carolina in the east regional.
Now it may just reap the whirlwind.