Will Lady Vols basketball host March Madness? We asked ESPN's Charlie Creme

Cora Hall
Knoxville News Sentinel

Lady Vols basketball finally got its signature win when it upset LSU on Saturday to advance to its first SEC Tournament final since 2015.

Was the win over No. 4 LSU enough to boost Tennessee into the top 16 and host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament? The Lady Vols will get their answer on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), but ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme has reason to believe it won't happen. He has Tennessee as a 5-seed.

After going into the season as a Final Four favorite, the Lady Vols (23-11) quickly fell from the rankings after starting the season 4-4. Tennessee went 10-8 in nonconference play after playing the No. 1 in strength of schedule in the country.

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"The schedule is really good, and that should be commended," Creme told Knox News. "I think in a lot of ways that should always be rewarded, to some degree – teams who go out and just schedule, and (coach) Kellie Harper certainly did that.

"But at some point, you got to beat somebody, and it took them a really long time to beat anybody any good. And they didn't beat anybody of note in the nonconference and had some really poor performances in the nonconference."

Is the LSU win enough for Tennessee to host?

After going 13-3 in SEC play, the most SEC wins for Tennessee since 2014-15, Kellie Harper believes the Lady Vols earned the right to host.

Not only because of SEC play, but because Tennessee is No. 15 in the NCAA NET, which is where it has hovered since SEC play began.

The NCAA selection committee considered Tennessee in the last top 16 reveal. But with all the teams the committee considered, Creme felt Tennessee was a "fringe" 5-seed or even a 6-seed.

Creme has Tennessee at No. 18 overall, with the possibility of making it to No. 17. But that still leaves the Lady Vols one spot away from hosting.

Creme said if the performance and result had been closer against No. 1 South Carolina in the SEC Tournament championship, a 78-54 loss, Tennessee could have strengthened its case. UCLA making a run to the Pac-12 Tournament final hurt the Lady Vols as well. The Bruins have a win over Tennessee and all but secured their spot as a 4-seed with the tournament run.

Tennessee celebrates after beating Louisiana State University 69-67 in the semi-final of the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C. Saturday, March 4, 2023.

"The (LSU) win helped (Tennessee), but maybe not enough to get them where they would have ultimately liked to have been," Creme said.

What's the biggest thing holding Tennessee back from hosting?

Ten of Tennessee's 11 losses were to teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25 and USA TODAY coaches poll – nine of those losses are to teams in the top 25 of the NET. It can check the box of not having any bad losses, which will come up for other teams.

The lack of quality wins is the biggest thing holding Tennessee back, Creme said. Showing you can beat tournament-worthy teams holds more weight, and Tennessee has only three wins over NET top 25 teams: No. 3 LSU, No. 23 Colorado and No. 25 Ole Miss.

It's why Creme said North Carolina (21-10) has a stronger case as a 4-seed with five wins over NET top 25 teams.

If Tennessee had won one more of its ranked matchups or gotten something of note from nonconference play besides Colorado, Creme said he believes it would be in the top 16.

"(The committee will) say, 'Well this team tested itself. They did go out and try. If they were just a little more successful, we might be able to seed them higher,' " Creme said. "I just don't think they will able to, because they just weren't quite as successful as they needed."

How do other teams impact Tennessee's chance to host?

Oklahoma is the other 5-seed with the potential to jump to a 4-seed over Tennessee. If the Sooners win the Big 12 Tournament this week, that would launch them into the top 16. Creme said even a run to the Big 12 final may be enough.

Villanova is the lowest ranked 4-seed, according to Creme. The other teams he has projected on the 4-seed line are North Carolina, UCLA and Texas.

Creme was surprised at Villanova's inclusion in the first top 16 reveal this season. If Creme was picking the final bracket, he would likely put Colorado at No. 16, Tennessee at No. 17 and Villanova at No. 18.

Colorado checks more boxes than Tennessee in Creme's opinion, despite losing to Tennessee in November. The Pac-12 schedule helped Colorado more than the SEC schedule helped Tennessee.

"Normally we're talking about four or five (SEC) teams in the top 20 of the s-curve. Now, we're talking about three teams that are 9-seeds or lower. That's not typical," Creme said. "That's where I don't know that the SEC really helps Tennessee at all. It doesn't hurt them, certainly the SEC is still a great league. The bar is set pretty high, and they didn't reach that bar this year."