SEC title = No. 1 seed

Like a dedicated gardener, the Tennessee Vols are looking to plant a seed at the SEC Basketball Tournament ... a No. 1 seed in this case.

The Big Orange can virtually assure itself of being a No. 1 seed for the upcoming NCAA Tournament by winning the league tourney that opens today at The Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

"There are six teams that probably are deserving of a No. 1 seed," senior guard Jordan Howell said recently. "If we can go in and win the SEC Tournament, I think that makes the (selection) committee's decision for them. We've got to go in and perform in the SEC Tournament, and we know that."

In addition to a 28-3 record, an SEC regular-season title and a No. 4 national ranking, the Vols are No. 1 in RPI and No. 1 in strength of schedule. Still, they could be victimized on Selection Sunday because they lack the marquee name of tradition-rich programs such as North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and UCLA.

"They definitely are a step ahead of us," Howell said. "They've received so many No. 1 seeds and won national championships. We're a step behind them when it comes to that, and we have something to prove to everybody. The way to do that is to advance in March."

UT coach Bruce Pearl believes the Vols are a No. 1 seed already. Still, they may need a good showing in Atlanta this weekend to solidify that status.

"It's very important to try to get the No. 1 seed," the coach said. "It may be ours to lose."

You might think the difference between a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed is insignificant. Statistically, that is not the case. One "bracketologist" reports that 50 percent of No. 1 seeds reach the Final Four on average, compared to only 13 percent of No. 2 seeds.

That being the case, winning the SEC Tournament title and locking up a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tourney could greatly enhance Tennessee's chances of making the Final Four in San Antonio later this month.

"Since the Florida game, all we've talked about every day from this point forward is about trying to get to San Antonio," Pearl said earlier this week. "That's where we're at right now.

"The best way for us to put ourselves in position to advance in the NCAA Tournament is to win the SEC Championship. That's the best thing we can do ... to hold on to a No. 1 seed. I believe our RPI, our strength of schedule, the quality of our road wins and our league, put us in that position (to be a No. 1 seed)."

Howell agrees but says the Vols will not be discouraged if they have to settle for a No. 2 seed.

"If we get a 2 seed, we have to go to the Final Four and win it," he said. "It doesn't matter what our seed is. Let's beat whoever we play. If we get a No. 1 seed, it'll be a great accomplishment. But either way we know we're in the NCAA Tournament, and there are six games we want to play in that.

"Our mindset is: Let's go win 'em all."

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