After a 5-1 finish to the regular season that included an upset of No. 2 Kentucky at Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee is preparing to kick off the 2010 SEC Tournament in Nashville's Sommet Center on Thursday. The Vols are the No. 3 seed from the Eastern Division and will clash with LSU in Thursday's first round game at 3:15 p.m. EST.
Tennessee, which squeezed out a 59-54 win in Baton Rouge on February 4, is in line to face Ole Miss in the second round on Friday should the Vols get past the Tigers. By virtue of the No. 2 seed in the SEC's Western Division, Ole Miss received a first round bye in this year's tournament despite having lost to UT on January 16 in Knoxville. The SEC seeds its tournament based on division finishes rather than overall record, and with the Eastern Division's dominance over the West this season, the seeding appears rather odd considering teams' records.
In an unusual bit of tournament mathematics, Tennessee could actually hurt its case for a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a win over LSU. Mike Griffith of the Knoxville News Sentinel reported on Monday that because of LSU's poor RPI (No. 222), UT's strength of schedule would actually take a hit with a win over the weak Tigers. In fact, according to Griffith, the only way UT can assure itself a No. 3 seed might be to reach the SEC title game on Sunday.
At the same time, losing to a team of LSU's caliber wouldn't help either, so the Vols are looking at a nice catch-22.
Tennessee threw together a nice finish to the regular season after a 73-62 road loss to Kentucky on February 13. The Vols showed resiliency on the road against Mississippi State on Saturday in what could have been UT's best-played game of the season. More importantly, though, Tennessee exemplified the ability to win big away from Knoxville, a trait that would come in handy in Nashville this weekend. While the SEC Tournament is technically a neutral site, Tennessee fans will need to travel in packs to give the Vols a home-away-from-home feel at the Sommet Center in Nashville.
My prediction? The Vols will take care of business against LSU on Thursday, but will have a tougher time against Ole Miss on Friday. UT needed overtime to overcome the Tigers in Knoxville. After Ole Miss, the Vols will face Kentucky in what would surely be a prime-time matchup for both squads, but I'm not sure UT has what it takes to survive the Wildcats for a second time in a row, especially if Kentucky plays to its potential in the second round and if the UK fans are swarming.
Look for UT to reach the semifinals against the Wildcats, but run out of gas late in the game similar to the Vols' road loss in Lexington earlier this season. Hopefully, the Vols can play well enough to secure a No. 3 seed for the NCAA Tournament.