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Resetting the SEC before conference play

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This is shaping up to be a banner year for the conference in terms of NCAA Tournament bids.

NCAA Basketball: Buffalo at Texas A&M John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

In the history of the Southeastern Conference, the league has never gotten more than six NCAA Tournament bids in a calendar year. That record could change this year.

Seven SEC teams are projected to make the NCAA Tournament field in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology at ESPN.com, and one more is in the Next Four Out. And a few more, if they haven’t stood out in November and December, at the very least haven’t hurt themselves. There’s still a lot of basketball left to be played, of course, but as we thought in the preseason this is shaping up to be a banner year for the league.

While the NCAA still uses the RPI, I’m using KenPom for a lot of my analysis here. For one thing, at this point RPI numbers are kind of weird. Right now, both Alabama and Tennessee get to count Lipscomb as a top 50 win, while Florida doesn’t get to count Gonzaga or Cincinnati. That doesn’t seem likely to hold up over the course of the season, though.

There are really only two teams that only have slim hopes for the tournament at this point, though. Here are my impressions of the SEC through Christmas.

Playing for Seeding

Texas A&M

The Texas A&M Aggies have looked like the SEC’s most impressive team so far. They’re currently ranked #6 in the RPI (good), #7 in KenPom (good), and have four wins over Top 50 teams (very good.) Their only loss of the season came against Arizona in Phoenix; that’s fine.

Their 88-65 win over West Virginia in the season opener looks very good right now. Their 75-59 win at Southern Cal on November 26 hasn’t aged as well, with the Trojans sitting at 6-4 and currently ranked #41 in KenPom rather than the top 10 team that many thought they were in October.

That said, this is easily the SEC’s strongest nonconference resume and the Aggies are as much a lock for the NCAA Tournament as a team can be in late December; right now, they’re projected as a #2 seed and it’s not hard to imagine them winding up as a #1 seed. At this point, they have to be considered the favorite to win the SEC.

In Good Shape

Arkansas

The Arkansas Razorbacks ’ 92-83 win over Oklahoma in the PK80 back on November 23 certainly qualifies as a signature win at this point; that’s Oklahoma’s only loss to date. A 95-79 win over Minnesota on December 9 is also a decent scalp to have, and neither of their losses (to North Carolina and Houston) hurt them much, since the NCAA doesn’t consider margin of victory. If they did, the fact that they lost to Houston by 26 points would look bad, but otherwise that was a road loss to a pretty good team. They’re currently #12 in the RPI and #23 in KenPom, and Lunardi projects them as a #5 seed. This is a solid resume, and the Razorbacks should be fine so long as they go at least .500 in the SEC.

Tennessee

You’ll probably hear it repeated numerous times on TV broadcasts that the Tennessee Volunteers were picked to finish 13th in the SEC in the preseason. Their computer numbers are stellar (#11 in the RPI, #28 in KenPom), and they might have the SEC’s best win to date, a 78-75 win over Purdue in the Bahamas on November 22. Neither of their losses — to Villanova and North Carolina — will hurt them at all.

Like Arkansas, Tennessee has done enough outside the conference that they’ll probably be fine if they go .500 in the SEC. Lunardi currently projects them as a #6 seed, which suggests that they’d have to do a lot of damage to their profile to end up in the NIT.

Not as good a resume as you think

Kentucky

The Kentucky Wildcats still have a ton of upside, but their standing in the polls (#16 in the most recent AP poll) mostly reflects the fact that they only have two losses. One came to Kansas back in November; the other to UCLA on Saturday.

Kentucky’s best win so far was a 93-86 win over Virginia Tech on December 16; the Hokies are currently #36 in KenPom but their weak nonconference schedule means that the RPI may not think too much of them. Lunardi currently projects them as a #3 seed, but that projection seems to be based much more on reputation than anything they’ve done so far, and it’s not difficult to imagine them slipping up a few times in SEC play.

It’s hard to think they would actually miss the NCAA Tournament, but their nonconference performance doesn’t give them much to fall back on if they step on too many land mines in conference play. Even a win over Louisville on Friday wouldn’t boost them that much; the Cardinals are currently #32 in KenPom and haven’t looked terribly impressive this season.

Florida

Well, the good news is that KenPom respects their wins over Gonzaga and Cincinnati a lot more than the RPI does, and the latter should fall in line. That said, their RPI numbers (#62) aren’t great at the moment, though KenPom has them at #30. A bigger concern is a home loss to Loyola-Chicago on December 6. The Ramblers actually aren’t a bad team (currently 10-2 and #93 in KenPom), but it’s not difficult to imagine the RPI viewing that as a black mark against them in March.

But given the top-to-bottom strength of the SEC, that will probably be their only black mark. The Gators’ nonconference schedule will probably work in their favor in spite of the four losses, and so long as they don’t pick up too many losses in the conference they should be fine.

Decent shape, but need to do some work

Auburn

The Auburn Tigers whiffed in their best chance for a quality win in nonconference play, losing to Temple on November 17. That’s also their only loss of the season, and while they don’t have any wins that will earn them national respect, they’ve beaten teams like Middle Tennessee and Murray State that are harder than they look. They’re currently in Lunardi’s Next Four Out, and they’ll have plenty of opportunities for quality wins in conference play. They’re currently #29 in RPI and #39 in KenPom, both of which are good.

Alabama

The Alabama Crimson Tide are kind of a mystery right now. The talent is there, but they haven’t had too many impressive performances this season — in fact, their best performance might well have come in an 88-82 loss at Arizona on December 9. A neutral-court loss to Minnesota on November 25 won’t hurt them, and a technically neutral-court loss to Texas on Friday probably won’t, either; a home loss to UCF on December 3 might, though.

Their “signature win” so far is... Rhode Island? Their #20 ranking in the RPI is a reflection of the RPI thinking a lot of Rhode Island and Lipscomb, plus the fact that they’ve played only one truly awful team; their #50 ranking in KenPom is a better reflection of how they’ve played so far. Their current #8 seed in Lunardi’s bracket, like Kentucky’s #3 seed, seems to be much more based on projection than anything they’ve actually done. That said, there’s plenty of reason to believe Collin Sexton and company could get things together in SEC play, and they’ll also get consideration for Braxton Key missing the team’s first ten games.

Missouri

The RPI (#3) and KenPom (#54) have a substantial disagreement about the Missouri Tigers, though granted KenPom’s ratings are still factoring in their rather mediocre preseason projection. Their first two losses (at Utah on November 16 and vs. West Virginia on November 26) aren’t going to hurt them — though I’d keep a close eye on Utah’s RPI with the Pac-12 looking pretty bad this year. A loss to a not-terrific Illinois team on Saturday might hurt. A season-opening win over Iowa State doesn’t look like it will hold up; so far, the Tigers’ best win came against St. John’s on November 24. And they aren’t participating in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, meaning they’ll have to shore up their resume in SEC play. That’s doable, but this looks like a middle-of-the-pack SEC team.

All of that could change, of course, if Michael Porter Jr. returns at some point this season. While Porter was previously ruled out for the season, there are whispers that he might be ready to go later in the season.

Georgia

KenPom isn’t sold on the Georgia Bulldogs (#63), and wins over St. Mary’s, Marquette, and especially Georgia Tech look less impressive than they did when they were scheduled — though there’s plenty of time for St. Mary’s and Marquette to bounce back. (Not so much Georgia Tech, which is thankful that Pitt exists or else they’d probably be headed for a last-place finish in the ACC.) Oh, and a December 16 loss at UMass hurts.

Basically, Georgia needs to do fairly well in the SEC and hope that one of St. Mary’s or Marquette winds up in the RPI top 50. That’s not a great position to be in, but it could be a lot worse.

Lots of work to do

South Carolina

This is about the dividing line where we get into teams that have significant work left to do. The South Carolina Gamecocks are 8-3 with an RPI of 38 (fine) and a KenPom of 58 (okay.) Their best win so far, though, was a win over Wyoming — 132 in KenPom — on December 6, and a loss to Illinois State back on November 16 looks like it will hurt. South Carolina does get a home game against Texas Tech as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, and that’s an opportunity for a quality win — but they’ll need to do a lot more than that. That said, the Gamecocks have dropped off a lot less than I initially thought they would, and they should be at least an NIT team.

Mississippi State

It’s hard to get a read on the Mississippi State Bulldogs at this point. They’ve only played one game away from Starkville, and that was a 65-50 loss at Cincinnati on December 12. That’s also their only game against a team currently ranked in the top 100 of KenPom. That schedule is probably why their computer numbers — #61 in RPI, #64 in KenPom -- are unimpressive, though it doesn’t help that they’ve had some close scrapes with teams like Stephen F. Austin, Jacksonville State, and Dayton. The good news is that they haven’t hurt themselves, though they’ll need to do a lot of work in SEC play to get into the bubble conversation. Their weak nonconference schedule will leave them with almost no margin for error.

Wait until next year, probably

Vanderbilt

The Vanderbilt Commodores set an NCAA record by getting into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team with 15 losses last year, and this year’s team appears to have taken that as a challenge by picking up seven losses in nonconference play. None of those losses are particularly bad — a loss at Belmont, who’s currently #101 in KenPom, on November 13 is the worst — but, well, that’s a lot of losses. Assuming they lose to TCU in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, they’d need to go 11-7 in the SEC just to finish with a record over .500.

And, well, this doesn’t look like a team that will go 11-7 in the SEC. This is shaping up to be a long year for Vanderbilt, but with Darius Garland and Simi Shittu arriving next year it probably won’t last long.

Ole Miss

Ugh. The Ole Miss Rebels might not be the SEC’s worst team (#82 in KenPom), but right now they likely have the SEC’s worst resume (#190 in the RPI.) They don’t have as many losses as Vanderbilt, with a 6-5 record, but they also have some very questionable ones — a loss to #102 South Dakota State on November 28, and a loss to #144 Illinois State on December 16. And their best win was over #99 Louisiana-Lafayette in the season opener. They’re fairly close to being in a position where they need to win the SEC’s automatic bid -- and they’re surprisingly one of the worst teams in the conference.

LSU

The LSU Tigers currently have a Top 10 recruiting class, which is about the best thing you can say about them right now. They do have a couple of nice wins — over #32 Michigan in Maui on November 20, and over #39 Houston on December 13. They also lost to Stephen F. Austin, though, and KenPom currently has them pegged as the worst team in the SEC.

Granted, that probably says a lot more about the strength of the SEC (their #90 ranking would be the best ranking for the SEC’s worst team since 2002) than it does about LSU, but they’re still probably going to struggle to win games in the conference. But after last year’s disaster, you’d take just being a tough out for the rest of the league, right?