Selection Sunday is rapidly approaching, so let's set the expectations for the SEC and the NCAA Tournament.
Right now, only the Kentucky Wildcats and Texas A&M Aggies are true locks for the tournament. If they lose on Saturday and then again in their first SEC Tournament games, they will have nothing to worry about other than the numbers that go next to their names on Selection Sunday.
The South Carolina Gamecocks are close to that status, but they're not quite all the way there in part because they haven't played yet this week. If they lose to Georgia tomorrow, at Arkansas on Saturday, and then to, say, Ole Miss in their first game of the SEC Tournament, it's not unthinkable that the committee might pass them over. Their resume is good but not great. A win over the Bulldogs probably makes them a lock, and closing out the regular season 2-0 definitely does.
Who's on the Right Side of the Bubble?
Right now, the Vanderbilt Commodores are the only other team in the field according to the most recent update of the Bracket Matrix. Vandy is sitting on a 10-seed in large part because it finally got a signature win by defeating Kentucky last weekend and then followed that up by taking care of business against an inferior Tennessee team.
Vandy closes with a road game at Texas A&M, and winning that will probably lock them up a spot in the Big Dance. Losing it won't hurt, but it could mean that a win—or more accurately, not losing their first game—in the SEC Tournament will be required.
Who's on the Wrong Side of the Bubble?
The Bracket Matrix has the Florida Gators as the first team out of the field. According to ESPN's RPI numbers that were last updated yesterday, UF's schedule strength is a meaty 7th nationally. Unfortunately for the Gators' case, their RPI ranking has sunk all the way to 55th because they just haven't won enough games. While they only have a single RPI 100+ loss (at Tennessee), they're only 2-10 against the RPI top 50.
As I've said elsewhere this week: Florida may not have many strikes against it, but it just doesn't have that many reasons for it other than the SOS number. The Gators can't lose to Missouri this weekend and will need multiple SEC Tournament wins along with some help nationally to have more than a coin flip's chance of getting in.
The Alabama Crimson Tide was the third team out of the bracket, but that was before it lost to Arkansas last night. Bama's RPI of 49 is better than Florida's 55, and its SOS of 31 is still pretty good. However, the Tide picked up its third 100+ RPI loss a night ago, and that trio of bad losses includes a 150+ loss at Auburn. Alabama has some big wins like those over Texas A&M and Notre Dame, but those awful stumbles hold them back. They might need to make a run to the SEC Tournament title game to have a good chance.
The LSU Tigers are sort of still sitting out there, but they'll need to win at Kentucky on Saturday just to reenter the bubble discussion. And even after getting that win, LSU getting an SEC Tournament double bye means it probably wouldn't be able to get enough wins in the tourney to merit inclusion in the Big Dance without just winning the whole thing and getting the SEC's auto bid.
Who Should We Root For?
If you're a fan of a bubble team or are otherwise just interested in seeing the SEC maximize its number of tournament bids, this is your rooting guide for the next two weeks:
|Conference||Acceptable Champions||Bubble Teams|
|A10||Dayton, St. Joe's||VCU, St. Bonaventure, G. Washington|
|AAC||UConn, Cincy, Tulsa, Temple||UConn, Cincy, Tulsa, Temple|
|ACC||UVA, Miami, UNC, Duke, ND, Pitt||Syracuse, Florida State|
|Big 12||Baylor, KU, ISU, OU, Texas, TTU, WVU||None|
|Big East||Villanova, Xavier, Seton Hall||Butler, Providence|
|Big Ten||MSU, UMD, Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, UW||Michigan, Ohio State|
|Mountain West||San Diego State||San Diego State|
|MVC||Wichita State||Wichita State|
|Pac-12||Oregon, Utah, Cal, Arizona, Colorado||USC, Oregon State|
|Sun Belt||Arkansas-Little Rock||Arkansas-Little Rock|
|WCC||St. Mary's, Gonzaga||St. Mary's, Gonzaga|
SBNation has a huge feature on the mid-major tournaments, so if you want more info, check it out.
The "Acceptable Champions" column essentially is a list of tournament near-locks for multi-bid conferences and bubble dwelling favorites in potential one-bid conferences. Any team that rates a 9-seed or worse or is just outside the field in the latest Bracket Matrix ended up in the bubble teams column. Why 9-seed? Well, South Carolina is the final 8-seed. They should be in, so they're not really a bubble team. Each committee is its own beast and can deliver surprises, so I wanted to be conservative with what qualifies as a bubble team. South Carolina felt like a good enough place to draw the line.
There are five conferences with only a single bubble team: Horizon, MAAC, MW, MVC, and Sun Belt. It would be best for those bubble teams to go ahead and win their conference tournaments. If those can just be one-bid leagues, that'd be great.
The West Coast Conference is a little different. There seems to be a fair amount of disagreement on whether or not St. Mary's and/or Gonzaga can actually get an at-large spot. Since I'm being on the conservative side, I put both teams down. According to the Bracket Matrix, St. Mary's is in as a 10-seed and the Zags are out. If you want just one team to root for here, go with the Gaels.
The rest of the conferences are straightforward: root for someone in the Acceptable Champions column to win the league tournament and hope the teams in the bubble category lose early to someone embarrassing. At the very least, hope that the bubble teams don't make a deep run and knock off anyone from the other column.
The SEC was pretty mediocre this year, so getting a fifth team in the field would be nice. New coaches like Avery Johnson and Ben Howland have shown some flashes that inspire hope for the future, Florida didn't collapse without Billy Donovan, and you have to figure Bruce Pearl will have Auburn rising up sooner or later. Billy Kennedy and Frank Martin had breakout seasons, while Andy Kennedy and Mike Anderson have taken teams to the Big Dance before. It's not hard to imagine the conference hitting six or seven bids in the not too distant future, but five is probably about where things top out in 2016.