The women’s basketball Volunteers were in danger their NCAA Tournament streak ending. Did the COVID-19 cancelations save the Tennessee Lady Vols program?
Despite their slide into borderline irrelevance over the past decade, for obvious reasons to be fair, the Tennessee Lady Vols still held on to one major streak. They remain the only program to have reached the women’s basketball NCAA Tournament every year since it began back in 1982.
However, when coronavirus canceled all winter and spring sports, this team, led by first-year head coach Kellie Harper, was in trouble. It was 21-10 and 10-6 in the SEC with the No. 95 ranked strength of schedule, dropping it down to No. 66 in the RPI.
To make matters worse, the Tennessee Lady Vols’ most recent outing was an 86-65 blowout loss to the Kentucky Wildcats in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. With that, they had a hard sell to reach the NCAA Tournament.
After all, in addition to their horrible strength of schedule and blowout loss at the end, Harper’s team had exactly one top 50 RPI win, a home victory over the LSU Tigers. For the year, they were 1-10 against teams in the top 50. Their only two other top 100 RPI wins were over the Georgia Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide, and none of those three were on the road.
Now, to be fair, as is clear with the 10 losses, the Tennessee Lady Vols went 20-0 against teams outside of the top 50 of the RPI. So they did run the table against lesser competition, something that’s to be applauded. But you need quality wins, and they didn’t get any.
As a result, if they had made the NCAA Tournament, it would have been on brand name alone. Honestly, the streak should have come to an end last year, Holly Warlick’s final year, but the name got them to back into the NCAA Tournament, where they were eliminated in the first round.
So taking all of that into account, one thing is pretty clear. The coronavirus ending the season before the NCAA Tournament selection process may have saved the Tennessee Lady Vols’ status a the only program to never miss the Big Dance.
Obviously, nobody would have held missing the tournament against Harper. She had a young team, was in her first year on the job and had to deal with the transfer of last year’s best player, Evina Westbrook, and a season-ending injury to one of her top guards, Zaay Green.
Still, missing the tournament would have been a major stain on everything that makes this program proud. So COVID-19 ending the year may have saved that stain from occurring, which is a crazy thing to think about.