Vols deserve a bye

Tennessee posted a much better SEC record (11-5) than either Ole Miss (9-7) or Mississippi State, and beat both teams during the regular season. Still, the Rebels and Bulldogs got first-round byes for the league tournament and the Vols did not.

That seems unfair but the arrangement is in line with the SEC's seeding system. The league seeds by divisional finish rather than by record, giving the top two teams in the East and the top two teams in the West first-round byes. Ole Miss and Mississippi State tied for first place in the West, so they get to rest on Thursday. Because it finished third in the East behind Kentucky and Vanderbilt, Tennessee must beat LSU on Thursday in order to reach Friday's quarterfinals.

Although he is being victimized by the SEC's seeding formula, Vol coach Bruce Pearl is not inclined to criticize it.

"This is who we have to play and when we have to play them," he said. "If there's a better way to do it, hopefully they'll look at that. But that's just not my call."

If the SEC seeded by record instead of divisional finish, the four first-round byes would go to Kentucky (14-2), Vanderbilt (13-3), Tennessee (11-5) and Florida (9-7). Although the Gators have the same conference record as Ole Miss and Mississippi State, they beat both teams in head-to-head competition during the regular season.

You can make a strong case that Tennessee and Florida are much more deserving of first-round byes than Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Pearl is too diplomatic to come out and say that, however.

"You'd like to protect your top seeds, protect their RPIs because they've earned it over the course of a year," he said. "When it comes to these (league) tournaments, it's all about the NCAA Tournament and all about seeding. That's why you try to win a (league) tournament championship for sure."

With a 23-7 overall record and No. 15 national ranking, the Vols already are assured of an NCAA Tournament bid. Playing well in the SEC Tournament won't help them a great deal but playing poorly and losing early could damage their NCAA seeding. Pearl knows all too well how destructive a late-season loss can be.

"The loss to Arkansas in the (2007) SEC semifinal we were told really hurt our chance to be a 1 seed," the Vol coach recalled. "And the loss of the last regular-season game to Alabama a year ago we were told is why we were a 9 seed (instead of a 7 or 8)."

Most "bracketologists" project the Vols to be a 4 seed at present. Winning the SEC Tournament could get them a 3 seed for the NCAA Tournament. A Thursday loss to LSU could drop them to a 5 or 6 seed.

"There's a huge difference between a 3 and a 5 seed," Pearl said. "There's a difference between being a 5 and a 8. You don't worry about what you can't control, so all you do is try to put yourself in the best possible position. But the last couple of years we've not managed to be in the best possible positions."

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