The SEC’s struggles on the hardwood in recent years have been well-documented: Over the last eight years, the SEC has averaged 3.75 NCAA Tournament bids per season and the conference has never gotten more than five bids in a single year over that stretch. Contrast that with the decade preceding: From 1999-2008, the SEC averaged 5.8 tournament bids per season, and never did worse than five bids in a given year.
The causes of that are complicated and probably deserve their own post, but let’s say that in a four-year span, SEC schools hired Billy Gillispie, John Pelphrey, Trent Johnson, Darrin Horn, Anthony Grant, and Tony Barbee. Also John Calipari but... okay, so they were 1-for-7.
So is that slump going to be broken? Maybe it will be soon, but probably not this season. The SEC probably won’t end up with more than four bids, and might even end up with three. Here’s why.
Kentucky and Florida are probably getting in. I hate to use the L-word in the middle of January, but it would take a meltdown of epic proportions for either of them to miss the tournament at this point. I shouldn’t really need to explain Kentucky’s resume to you, and Florida is flying under the radar but is currently #3 in the RPI and already has four wins over the top 50 — and the worst of the Gators’ three losses was to Duke. They’re fine.
South Carolina is in fine shape. The Gamecocks aren’t a lock, largely because they lost both of their top 50 games in nonconference play, and they’re hurt by wins over Michigan and Syracuse in November looking like nothing special now. That said, their RPI numbers are solid and for the time being they have a pair of top 50 wins in SEC play.
Anybody else? Incredibly, aside from those three, the rest of the SEC combined for a grand total of one win over the RPI top 50 in nonconference play — that would be Texas A&M’s win over Virginia Tech in the Wooden Legacy.
The good news is that a bunch of SEC teams have inflated RPIs — for instance, Georgia, Arkansas, and Ole Miss are all currently in the RPI top 50, and 8-9 Vanderbilt is 69th (nice!) in the RPI as of this writing. So there’s some chance that the league could squeeze out another bid or two.
But so far, nobody’s beaten Kentucky, Florida, or South Carolina, and for everybody else in the league, getting an NCAA Tournament bid is probably going to involve beating one or more of those teams because the SEC’s bubble teams have zero heft to their profiles. Texas A&M does have that quality win over Virginia Tech; they’ve also started SEC play 1-4 with losses to Tennessee (at home!) and Mississippi State. Georgia is sitting at 40th in the RPI and doesn’t have any bad losses, but they’ve whiffed in their opportunities for quality wins. The same could be said of Arkansas, and they also recently added a loss to Mississippi State at home to their resume. Ole Miss is 10-0 against teams outside the RPI top 50 and 0-7 against top 50 squads.
Odds are that somebody will squeak through and get a fourth bid for the league. But there’s a decent chance that the top three teams in the SEC will just wipe the floor with everyone else and deny the rest of the league the chance at getting a bid.
Is that a bad thing, though? That’s actually debatable. In recent years, the SEC hasn’t just had a problem with getting teams in the tournament, but also — aside from Kentucky and occasionally Florida -- they’ve had trouble getting teams with good seeds or winning games in the tournament. For instance, last year the SEC got three bids — but no team was seeded higher than third, the league went 3-3 in the tournament, and only one team got to the second weekend. In 2015 the league did get five teams in, but only one was seeded higher than fifth and four of them were gone before the second weekend.
The league might actually be better off if Kentucky, Florida, and South Carolina just dominate everyone else, wind up with good seeds in the tournament and make deep runs. That might help the league’s perception more than Georgia or Arkansas or Ole Miss losing a game in Dayton would.