We find ourselves at a peculiar point with a month left before tournaments begin. For some, the finishing touches are being put on their NCAA tournament résumés as teams fight for just one more road win or another Top 50 RPI victory. Anything to keep the year alive. For others, the burgeoning calls of job termination from angry fans threaten to consume the rest of the season.
At this very same point, the Southeastern Conference is bogged down with gridlock atop its standings. Unlike in previous years when, say, Kentucky or Florida ruled alone, we are currently stuck with a three-way tie at the standings’ summit. At this decisive juncture, three teams—Florida, Kentucky, and South Carolina—are knotted up at first place in the SEC.
Two of those clubs even saw their names come up this weekend during the NCAA’s early selection show, as it was revealed that Florida and Kentucky both currently occupy spots on the three line.
With six games left to go and a conference title on the line, what will it take for each of the three aforementioned teams to rise above the rest and claim the SEC title?
For Kentucky, a team that has won the last two regular season SEC titles, this is a familiar spot to be in. They just aren’t used to having to share it. After rattling off seven straight wins to start conference play, the Wildcats have dropped road games to Tennessee and Florida, one of the teams vying for the SEC crown.
Now, even though Kentucky may only have two losses in conference play, that by no means suggests that they have played well of late. After being routed by the Gators, taken to overtime by Georgia, and struggling with LSU, the SEC’s worst team, it’s clear that these ‘Cats need an adjustment if they’re to bring a third straight conference title back home to Lexington.
Fortunately, the path to another SEC title sees them facing off against only one of the teams they’re currently tied with for first place. Now, that team may be UF, but it’s taking place in Rupp, giving UK a bit of a leg up on the competition. They have three remaining games against KenPom Top 50 teams, but with two of those being home games, it’s easy to see why the oft-lauded Pomeroy predicts that the Wildcats will win out.
Of the three teams currently tied for first, it’s clear to see that Kentucky possesses the easiest remaining schedule. The only question is whether or not they’ll be able to take advantage of that, stay the course, and take care of business at home against Florida.
Kentucky’s Remaining Schedule
|2/14/17; 7 pm||Tennesse||ESPN|
|2/18/17; 6 pm||@ Georgia||ESPN|
|2/21/17; 9 pm||@ Mizzou||SECN|
|2/25/17; 2 pm||Florida||CBS|
|2/28/17; 9 pm||Vandy||ESPN|
|3/4/17; 12 pm||Texas A&M||CBS|
For the first time since Billy Donovan left Gainesville (and even since his penultimate season, really), the Florida Gators are in really good shape to win the SEC regular season title. It really seems like a lot of things are finally going their way. For starters, the Gators have a good deal of experience, and it’s certainly a lot more than Kentucky and South Carolina possess. On top of that, they’re currently riding a six-game winning streak, during which they’ve beaten each team by an average of about 25 points.
And it’d be very remiss of me to forego mentioning that one of the teams that was caught up in Florida’s win streak was Kentucky. The Cats were absolutely dismantled at the O’Connell Center. A win like that has set the tone for the remainder of Florida’s season, but they are going to need to keep this streak alive if they are to win the SEC title.
Of Florida’s six remaining games, only two opponents are ranked inside the KenPom Top 50. Unfortunately for the Gators, both of those teams are the ones they’re tied with for first place. That’s right: Florida will essentially have to win at Rupp and defeat a South Carolina team that beat them back in January if they want to stay in first place.
Not only that, but Florida also has four more road games left on the docket. The odds are high that difficulties could be posed by one of their remaining road games, specifically the Vanderbilt one. Overall, asking them to win all of those is a very tall order, and it’s clear why they have the toughest remaining schedule of any of the SEC’s three remaining contenders.
Florida’s Remaining Schedule
|2/14/17; 7 pm||@ Auburn||SECN|
|2/18/17; 2 pm||@ Mississippi State||ESPN|
|2/21/17; 7 pm||South Carolina||ESPN|
|2/25/17; 2 pm||@ Kentucky||CBS|
|3/1/17; 7 pm||Arkansas||ESPN2|
|3/4/17; 2 pm||@ Vandy||N/A|
If not for a grueling, hard-fought, quadruple-overtime home loss to Alabama last week, the South Carolina Gamecocks would be sitting at 11-1 in SEC play, putting them in sole possession of first place. That also means that this article wouldn’t have been written by me, so for that, thank you, Crimson Tide.
In all seriousness though, there’s a good chance that the loss to Alabama could have meant the end of South Carolina’s SEC title hopes. You see, while the Gamecocks are still tied for first right now, their remaining schedule is not one that looks particularly conducive to a title run.
Though the Gamecocks don’t have to worry about facing off against Kentucky anymore this season, they still have another game with Florida to help set themselves apart from their fellow first place foes. However, KenPom currently gives South Carolina a 20% chance of winning that game in Gainesville, a number that doesn’t bode well for the Gamecocks’ hopes to catapult themselves into first place.
Beyond that, South Carolina plays one more KenPom Top 50 team, Tennessee. Now, even though they don’t face a great number of highly-ranked opponents, the win percentages given by Pomeroy don’t paint a picture of success for Frank Martin’s squad. As of now, he only gives them a 54% chance of beating Vanderbilt on the road this weekend and a 61% chance of taking down Ole Miss in Oxford.
Given their reliance on Sindarius Thornwell, whose usage rate is among the nation’s highest, there’s a good shot that one off night from their star could bring the hopes of an SEC title crashing to a halt in Columbia. There’s even some precedent for that: Three of South Carolina’s worst losses (Seton Hall, Clemson, @ Memphis) came during a period earlier in the year when Thornwell was serving a suspension.
Right now, the Gamecocks are the dark horse to win the SEC, but it would be foolish to even think about counting them out just yet.
South Carolina’s Remaining Schedule
|2/15/17; 6:30 pm||Arkansas||SECN|
|2/18/17; 8:30 pm||@ Vandy||SECN|
|2/21/17; 7 pm||@ Florida||ESPN|
|2/25/17; 1 pm||Tennessee||SECN|
|2/28/17; 7 pm||Mississippi State||ESPNU|
|3/4/17; 8:30 pm||@ Ole Miss||SECN|
So, after examining all of the above schedules, it seems as if Kentucky has the best shot at bringing home this season’s SEC regular season-crown. Getting to play the Gators in Rupp is a sweet deal for Kentucky, and the rest of their schedule doesn’t look all that menacing. Florida has too many road games to worry about, and the advanced analytics from KenPom don’t seem to be behind a gallant, championship-winning sprint to the finish line for South Carolina.
Nothing is for certain, however, except for the fact that we’re in for an exciting finish to the season. As we know all too well, there’s no point in counting anyone out until the final buzzer sounds.
Three teams. Six games apiece to decide the title winner. Enjoy the ride, folks.