A busy Saturday of SEC basketball provided some some clarity in the league's at-large picture along with some great finishes.
The final nail in the coffin of Ole Miss' NCAA tournament at large hopes came with a 64-61 loss to Florida. The Rebels have a single great non conference win, no signature wins in conference, and can't have a better SEC record than 9-7. That's just not going to get it done no matter the state of the league as a whole. Florida's hopes remain alive for now, as a remarkable 25-27 day at the charity stripe made up for a 36.5% day from the field. UF swept its SEC West games, but the troubling shooting slump by guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker continued.
Elsewhere, the best match up provided the best game, which is always a great thing when it happens. Kentucky held on to beat Vanderbilt 58-56 despite missing three free throws in the last minute. John Wall made up for them by blocking a John Jenkins three pointer, but his subsequent missed free throw left the game in doubt as it left the lead at two. A.J. Ogilvy got an open look at the end to send it to overtime, but his runner in the lane bounced painfully off the rim. It was an ugly and physical game, but the ending was certainly memorable.
Also coming down to the wire was Mississippi State's 60-59 escape against LSU. The Bulldogs had just two players with good games, with the back-from-suspension Ravern Johnson contributing 16 points and the incomparable Jarvis Varnado putting up 14 points and seven blocks. It was a disaster averted for MSU, as giving the Tigers their first SEC win would have essentially knocked them out of tourney at large contention along with Ole Miss. For LSU, it was just another reason to focus on baseball season.
But while State is still alive for at large territory, whatever hopes that some random and extremely optimistic people had for Arkansas getting an at large bid for a stellar SEC record are now dead with a 92-83 loss to Auburn. A hailstorm of threes by the Tigers are what buried the Hogs on Saturday, which drops the Razorbacks back into a tie for first in the SEC West. Arkansas is still in great shape to get a first round bye in the conference tournament, as it has a two game lead over third place Ole Miss, and that's what's really important for the team from here on out.
South Carolina hung with Tennessee for much of its game before falling 63-55. It was the 20th win of the season for the Vols, who are a rare SEC team that is playing for positioning in the tournament rather than for inclusion or for pride. With a little under seven minutes to go it was a 51-50 Tennessee game, but Carolina went cold and didn't score another point until four and a half minutes later when the Vols had put the game largely out of reach. This would have been a good win for South Carolina in terms of NIT positioning, while Bruce Pearl is now perfect in getting to the 20 win threshold.
Finally, Georgia pulled even in conference record with Alabama by taking down the Crimson Tide 78-70. UGA's Trey Thompkins was again great as he put up 21 points in the winning effort. Mikhail Torrance nearly matched him with 20 points for Alabama. It was Georgia's first win over an SEC West opponent, and it denied Bama its first SEC East victory of the year. For the Tide, it was another in a long line of blown leads, this time a 13 point margin over the last 11 minutes.
So where do we all stand in relation to the tournament?
According to SB Nation's shiny, brand new edition of bracketology, four SEC teams are in line to get bids: Kentucky (1 seed), Vanderbilt (4), Tennessee (7), and Florida (10). Mississippi State is barely on the outside looking in with a spot on the first four out, and Ole Miss ins haunting the next four out.
The first three are pretty safely in at this point, barring some kind of collapse by the Vols. Florida has a tough road to hoe with Tennessee and Vandy at home and Georgia and Kentucky on the road still to go, but that could be a blessing in disguise since the Gators could really use an RPI top 50 win or two to bolster its claim to being in. A 1-3 record may not get it done, but a 2-2 mark just might be. Mississippi State has only one chance to impress with its season closing game against Tennessee. These teams could also get some credits for tourney inclusion with SEC tournament wins.
With Ole Miss' loss, it would appear that five is the most the SEC could hope for barring a Cinderella-type run for someone in Atlanta. Some Bracket Busters results cleared out some space on the bubble, and mid-major conference favorites winning their league tournaments always helps. It should be an interesting few weeks leading up to Selection Sunday.