As far as the NCAA Tournament goes, it’s a good news/bad news situation for the Southeastern Conference.
The good news? As of today, the SEC has three teams — Florida, Kentucky, and South Carolina -- that appear to be in the field with room to spare. According to the Bracket Matrix, as of Sunday night those three were included in all 87 brackets, with South Carolina, the lowest of the three, being a 6-seed. The consensus — and, well, the Selection Committee -- has Kentucky and Florida as 3-seeds at the present time. So while this isn’t exactly a banner year for the SEC, we can pretty safely assume that the league won’t fall below its modern low of 3 tournament bids. It’s also not terribly likely that the league will be shut out of the top four seed lines, as happened in 1989, 1990, and 2009.
The bad news, though, is that for the fourth time in the last five years, the SEC might not get more than three bids. The simple reason is that the middle tier of the league can’t stop beating each other (and, recently, losing to Missouri). Nine of the league’s fourteen teams currently have a league record between 5-7 and 7-5. There’s less of a gap between fourth place and twelfth than there is between fourth place and third -- or between twelfth and thirteenth.
Right now, the Bracket Matrix has Tennessee and Arkansas among the last four teams in the tournament — but the Vols appear in just 42 of 87 brackets, while the Razorbacks appear in 47. Georgia appears in two brackets, and Vanderbilt (somehow) appears in one. Alabama — tied for fourth place in the conference with a 7-5 record — doesn’t appear in a single bracket.
So will the SEC get a fourth bid (or more)?
Let’s take a look at the contenders.
Overall record: 18-7; SEC: 7-5; RPI: 44; KenPom: 57; vs. RPI Top 25: 0-3; vs. RPI Top 50: 2-4; vs. RPI sub-100: 11-2; vs. sub-150: 7-1
For a long time, the main bullet point on Arkansas’s resume was a lack of bad losses. The Razorbacks’ computer numbers are so-so, and they don’t have a lot of quality wins -- the best wins are a road win over Tennessee (RPI: 42) and a home win over UT-Arlington (RPI: 48) -- so that made the loss to Missouri on February 4 sting that much more.
The good news? Arkansas still has a couple of chances left to impress the committee with trips to South Carolina (Wednesday) and Florida (March 1) left on the schedule. The bad news is that Arkansas probably needs to win at least one of those — and they probably need to sweep remaining home games against Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Georgia. (Winning at Auburn obviously wouldn’t hurt, either). It’s doable, but if it can’t be done the Hogs will probably have to win a couple of games in the SEC Tournament. That’s going to be a recurring thing here, by the way.
Overall record: 14-11; SEC: 6-6; RPI: 42; KenPom: 41; vs. RPI Top 25: 1-6; vs. RPI Top 50: 2-8; vs. RPI sub-100: 6-1; vs. sub-150: 4-0
In spite of a worse overall record, Tennessee might actually be in better shape than Arkansas. The Vols played a tough non-conference schedule and while they only picked up one marquee win (and that was in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge), they do have a win over Kentucky as a nice bullet point on their resume. That and an absence of bad losses -- the worst loss was at Mississippi State (RPI: 112) — have Tennessee in decent shape, and they’re frankly playing with house money as almost no one was expecting them to be any good this year.
So are the Vols in good enough shape that they can just win the games they’re supposed to? That would mean beating Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Alabama at home, and LSU on the road. If they then lose to Kentucky and South Carolina on the road, is that good enough?
My gut tells me that if the Vols go into the SEC Tournament with an 18-13 record and then add a win in the first round, they’ll have the kind of profile that the committee likes to reward — challenging nonconference schedule, no really bad losses and a couple of quality wins balanced against a lot of losses to tough competition. Much to the annoyance of fans of mid-majors that play one or two top 50 teams all year, the Vols may get in. They might actually be the best bet in the SEC’s bubble pack. But this isn’t a done deal by any means.
Overall record: 14-11; SEC: 5-7; RPI: 50; KenPom: 50; vs. RPI top 25: 0-6; vs. RPI top 50: 1-6; vs. RPI sub-100: 6-1; vs. sub-150: 4-0
There’s a weird parallel between Tennessee’s resume and Georgia’s, which makes it a little ironic that the Bulldogs picked up their first top 50 win of the year over Tennessee on Saturday. Prior to that, the main feature of the Bulldogs’ resume was a string of “quality losses”: Overtime losses at Florida and Kentucky, two losses to South Carolina by a combined eight points, a “neutral-court” loss to Kansas in Kansas City. The only real blemish is a loss at Oakland and a 20-point home loss to Alabama.
That said — the Bulldogs have a gift-wrapped opportunity at a quality win when Kentucky comes to Athens on Saturday. If the Bulldogs can win that (and assuming they beat Mississippi State at home on Tuesday), we can talk. Barring that, Georgia could win at Arkansas in the season finale, but there are precious few opportunities to really impress the committee remaining on the schedule.
Overall record: 14-10; SEC: 7-5; RPI: 66; KenPom: 62; vs. RPI top 25: 1-3; vs. RPI top 50: 2-5; vs. RPI sub-100: 10-1; vs. sub-150: 7-0
I might not think much of Alabama if not for (a) being in a tie for fourth place in the SEC at 7-5; and (b) having picked up probably the best win of any of the SEC bubble teams on Tuesday at South Carolina. Of course, the Tide can thank a 9-of-26 performance at the foul line on Saturday for not having an even better resume.
The problem here is that unlike some of the other teams here, Alabama doesn’t really have much of an opportunity to build on it. They face fellow bubblers Georgia (February 23 in Tuscaloosa) and Tennessee (March 4 in Knoxville); they also face both Missouri and LSU (and the former has suddenly become a tough out, at least at home). Alabama practically has to win out against the rest of their regular season schedule to feel any good about their chances.
Vanderbilt probably vomited away its chances at a tournament bid at Missouri on Saturday. The Commodores have played a difficult schedule and a quality win at Florida; they also have a sub-.500 record.
Ole Miss has decent computer numbers and no bad losses, but the closest thing the Rebels have to a quality win is a home win over Tennessee. They might have a shot if they can win out (which would give them a win at Arkansas and a home win over South Carolina) — but their remaining schedule also includes home games against LSU and Missouri, which aren’t going to move the needle much.
Unless they lose.
I’m already sort of on record saying that Auburn will be a trendy preseason top 25 team next season (the Tigers are already a decent team while starting four freshmen), but as for this year, their resume consists of a nice road win at TCU that’s balanced out by a loss to an awful Boston College team. More than probably anyone else, Auburn’s hurt by some early-season wins that didn’t hold up: Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and UConn just aren’t moving the needle at all this season. But they do have remaining games against Florida and Arkansas (home) and a road trip to Georgia, so maybe if they win out they’ll be worth a long look?
At the end of the day, I think the SEC will get four bids, and there’s still an outside chance at five. But as long as the middle of the league keeps cannibalizing itself, it’s hard to see this being a banner year for the league in terms of the number of bids.