While Vanderbilt and LSU fans are probably going to be paying more attention to the SEC tournament championship game today, there are other matters that are more important to the other teams in the conference -- namely, what the bracket will look like for the NCAA playoff that begins later this week. That begins to take shape later this evening; the regional hosting sites will be announced at 9 p.m. ET Sunday, which will automatically put at least some teams that we already know are going to be in the tournament in the tournament. But it will also clear up a few other issues ahead of the main selection show, which airs noon ET Monday on ESPNU.
This really hasn't changed much for the SEC in the last few weeks, except that long-shot South Carolina has fallen completely out of the picture for a national seed after slumping at the end of the season. There are probably two teams that will host regionals and, if they win those, super regionals: Vanderbilt and LSU. Vanderbilt is probably a lock for the No. 1 seed, and LSU could be as high as No. 3 (depending on to whom you listen), but an LSU win today could shake things up a bit.
The final number really doesn't matter that much. Once you get a national seed, the road to Omaha goes through your stadium. That road might ultimately be taken by Stony Brook, but it goes through your home stadium.
Mississippi State and at least one other SEC team is probably going to host a regional in the tournament without being a national seed. But that's where things get a little tricky.
One of the most heated debates over the last few days has been the dispute over which team will get what is believed to be the last two spots for regional hosts. Clemson and South Alabama have faded as choices, which basically brings things down to the trio of Arkansas, Virginia Tech and South Carolina. So here's the comparison, with the RPI numbers coming from Boyd's World's post-Friday RPI mock-up.
|Arkansas||Virginia Tech||South Carolina|
|Top 50 (G/W-L)||33 / 17-16||27 / 13-14||25 / 11-14|
|Top 100 (G/W-L)||33 / 17-16||38 / 23-15||32 / 17-15|
|Average Opp RPI||94.8||75.6||85.6|
|Source: Boyd's World|
There's not a ton of separation in those numbers, when taken as a whole. South Carolina has a slightly worse record against the Top 50, but a comparable record in the Top 100 to Arkansas and one that's substantially worse than Virginia Tech's. But the Gamecocks also have fewer losses to teams ranked lower than 100 and no losses to teams ranked lower than 200, and their worst loss is far better than either of the other teams. The average rank of teams they played goes Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Arkansas.
The final bullet point here is that Virginia Tech and South Carolina are going to have far better RPIs than Arkansas when the host sites are announced. You might think that's at least in part because the RPI is always controversial and perhaps more flawed this year than ever before -- and I think you have a case to make. The problem is that you and I don't get to pick the teams that make the field; the selection committee does. And NCAA selection committees tend to love RPIs, even when everyone outside the selection committee thinks they're hogwash.
This battle likely comes down to how much weight the selection committee puts on late-season momentum vs. RPI. If the battle is more about RPI, it's probably going to be Virginia Tech and South Carolina. But it's more about late-season momentum, it's more likely going to be Virginia Tech and Arkansas. There is still a chance that South Carolina and Arkansas could both make it, with Virginia Tech left out, in part because of the Hokies' losses and relatively mediocre ACC record (15-14). But I was a lot more confident in that possibility before I finished the numbers than after.
Basically, the following SEC teams beyond Vanderbilt, LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Arkansas are in: Ole Miss and Alabama. That's seven bids, which would be extraordinarily low for the SEC. There's going to be at least one more team that will get in, and possibly two. The only other SEC teams eligible are Florida, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Auburn.
Kentucky's not making it. They have a relatively low RPI and collapsed down the stretch, as well as the worst SEC record among the remaining teams. Beyond SEC strength, there's literally nothing for the selection committee to hang its hat on if it went with Kentucky.
The other three are more interesting. Florida has a mediocre record, but against one of the strongest if not the strongest schedule in the country. The Aggies were seen as a bubble team likely to be left out in the last few weeks of the season, but they heated up a little bit and made a deep run into the SEC tournament that included knocking off Vanderbilt once. Auburn was out early of the SEC tournament, but otherwise had a nice end of the season that included beating Arkansas in the final series.
Arkansas could serve as a canary in the coal mine of sorts for several of the teams, including Florida. If the Hogs get to host a regional, that means that RPI isn't going to be quite as important, which means Florida (in particular) is probably going to be in trouble with the selection committee. If the Razorbacks don't make it, and particularly if they're left out in favor of South Carolina, that means RPI is going be more important -- which is a good sign for Florida but maybe not such a good sign for, say, Texas A&M.
One of these three teams is likely to make it into the field. All three are not, and the way that other conference tournaments have gone, even two is starting to look like a stretch. I'm not entirely sure I know which one is going to make it.