The Lady Vols landed a No. 5 seed and a brutal bracket – ESPN analyst Kara Lawson called it “sizzling” – in the NCAA tourney and will get started Saturday against Dayton in Louisville, Kentucky.
Tennessee (19-11) will square off against No. 12 seed Dayton (22-9) with a tip time of 4 p.m. Eastern at the KFC Yum! Center. While the Lady Vols were tantalizing close to hosting – they would have started in Knoxville as a four seed – the early exit in the SEC tourney sent them packing. And given how well Tennessee plays on the road - especially this same time a year ago - that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Still, the No. 5 seed unveiled Monday evening was a surprise as most projections had Tennessee as a six or seven seed. The NCAA Selection Committee apparently looked favorably on the Lady Vols’ RPI, strength of schedule and wins over top opponents, including two of the No. 1 seeds, South Carolina and Notre Dame.
“Granted, they did have some losses, but the wins outweighed the losses,” said Terry Gawlik, chair of the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee.
Looking at the final bracket, none of those seeds – five, six or seven – provide a clear path out of the early rounds. The Lady Vols face a Dayton team that scores inside and out with size in the paint and shooters behind the arc.
Should Tennessee survive Dayton, the Lady Vols would likely face No. 4 seed Louisville (27-7) on its home floor in the second round. The Cardinals, which square off against No. 13 seed Chattanooga (21-10) in the opener in Louisville, lost in the second round on their home court a year ago and should be motivated not to repeat that inauspicious feat in 2017.
The No. 1 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional is Baylor with Mississippi State checking in at the No. 2 slot.
“Everybody is going to say their bracket is the hardest,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “So many great teams, but you’ve got to focus on who you’re playing. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Former Lady Vol Kara Lawson, who is now an ESPN analyst, said the Oklahoma City slate was “sizzling.” The same could be said of the Bridgeport Regional, which holds No. 1 seed UConn and No. 2 seed Duke. Maryland was a surprise at a No. 3 seed in Bridgeport, which also contains two tough teams in UCLA and West Virginia.
Notre Dame is the No. 1 seed in the Lexington Regional, which includes hometown Kentucky at No. 4 and No. 2 Stanford. South Carolina likely was eyeing a run through the state of Kentucky after starting the tourney in Columbia, but the Gamecocks may end up liking a West Coast excursion, as that portion of the bracket pales in comparison to the other three brackets, especially the matchups in Oklahoma City.
Tennessee enters the tournament as a team that has proven it can beat top teams and lose to unranked ones. After the loss to Alabama in the second round of the SEC tourney, the Lady Vols should realize a first round game in the NCAA tourney is one that presents a challenge. Dayton also has a 17-point victory this season over No. 5 seed Texas A&M.
“I would be shocked if we went in looking past Dayton,” said Warlick, who was headed home after meeting with the media to watch film on the Flyers. “We need to get after it.”
Tennessee is one of eight SEC teams in the field with the aforementioned Texas A&M, Kentucky, South Carolina, Mississippi State and also LSU, Missouri and Auburn.
“I feel like the Southeastern Conference is the best conference in the country,” Warlick said, "because every night teams come out and punch you. We’ve got big kids, we’ve got kids who shoot threes, we’ve got athletic teams, we’ve got running teams. So this conference ... I don’t know how it wouldn’t prepare you for anything that someone is going to throw at you. I’m not surprised eight got in. I’m not. It’s a grind. So the opportunity for the SEC to do well ... I’m really pleased. I’m excited that eight got in. I think that eight were well-deserving of getting in.”
Since the Lady Vols lost on March 2 in Greenville, South Carolina, the team has had plenty of time to both recover from the regular season and hold longer practices. Tennessee took off for three days and then got back on the court last March 6.
“We went longer. We went harder than we have in the past,” Warlick said.
Without the grueling process of a hard-fought SEC tourney over two or three days, Tennessee had no need for extended rest. So, practice became more like preseason after the truncated SEC postseason.
“I didn’t like how we ended in the SEC tourney,” Warlick said.
The break, however, did help as Warlick noted: “We’re not banged up. We’re good to go.”
When the Lady Vols take the court on Saturday, it will be the first game in 16 days. Tennessee, which will be playing in its 36th NCAA tourney - the Lady Vols are the only team to play in every NCAA tourney since the event began - was ready to see the brackets and an opponent.
Warlick and the team watched the show at the coach’s home in West Knox County and then Warlick returned to campus to talk to the media.
“They were excited to see their name come across,” Warlick said. They’re anxious to get going. Anything can happen. We know that.”
Holly Warlick (the video begins shortly after the 1-minute mark.)