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At the Turn: What to expect over the SEC’s back nine

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Everybody’s halfway through the conference schedule. What will happen between now and March?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

What Happened Last Night

Chris Chiozza had a triple-double. Going into Thursday night, Chiozza was averaging 5.0 ppg and shooting 33.3 percent from the floor; on Thursday, the junior from Memphis had 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in Florida’s 93-54 win over Missouri. Makes sense.

If I don’t catch a game live, I’ll frequently watch them on replay the day after, but this is probably one I won’t bother with, because look at that final score.

Like a golf course, the SEC’s basketball conference schedule has 18 games (or holes, if you will), and right now everybody’s completed the front nine. Let’s recap what’s happened so far and what we should expect over the back nine.

The SEC title is a three-team race

And after Saturday night, it might be a two-team race. Of course, on January 21, it looked like the SEC might be a one-team race: Kentucky won its only game of the season against South Carolina by a score of 85-69, improving the Wildcats to 7-0 in the SEC and handing the Gamecocks their first loss of the conference season, and Florida lost at home to Vanderbilt, dropping the Gators two games back.

But Kentucky surprisingly dropped its next game at Tennessee, and with South Carolina taking care of business over its next three games, and Florida being a game back and still having two shots at Kentucky left on the schedule — this race is live again. Now, Kentucky goes to the O-Dome on Saturday night and if the Gators can pull off the win — and KenPom gives them a 55% chance of doing that — then this race is really interesting.

Of course, if Kentucky wins, it’s hard to see how Florida gets back in the race as the Gators would then need to beat Kentucky in the rematch at Rupp and hope for Kentucky to drop another game somewhere else — oh, and they’d also need to beat South Carolina in the rematch on February 21 and have the Gamecocks drop another game somewhere else.

South Carolina has a pretty favorable remaining schedule — other than the aforementioned rematch against Florida, they should be favored in the rest of their remaining games — but they need to avoid any slip-ups and since they don’t play Kentucky again, they’ll need someone else to do their dirty work for them. That said, it’s February 3 and there’s still a realistic chance that someone other than Kentucky will win the conference, and that’s not something that we would have thought a month ago.

How many NCAA Tournament bids will the SEC get?

All right, look. If you have a ballot for SEC Coach of the Year, and you’re casting it for someone other than Rick Barnes — I don’t know what to tell you. Tennessee was picked to finish 13th in the SEC, and instead, the Vols would be in the NCAA Tournament if the field were selected today (per SB Nation’s Chris Dobbertean.) The Vols’ record isn’t sterling at 13-9 and 5-4 in the SEC, but they’ve played the nation’s 4th-toughest schedule and they don’t really have any bad losses. The closest thing they have to a bad loss was to a 14-6 Chattanooga team in the season opener. Their other losses: Wisconsin, Oregon, North Carolina (by 2 on the road), Gonzaga, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, and Ole Miss. And they’ve won four in a row, and that includes wins over Kentucky and Kansas State. So, yeah, this is a team with a very real shot at the NCAA Tournament.

Arkansas is a different case: the Razorbacks are 17-5, but their best win was a road win over fellow bubbler Tennessee. Their next best win? A road win over Vanderbilt. That said, if the Razorbacks take care of business in their next three games -- road trips to Missouri and LSU sandwiched around a home game against Vanderbilt — they should be in good position. In a vacuum this doesn’t sound all that impressive, but when you compare their resume to other, actual bubble teams, you see why most brackets have them in as of right now. They just need to avoid doing any damage to it.

And beyond those two (we’re assuming Kentucky, South Carolina, and Florida will be in at this point), things get super-sketchy. Alabama’s currently 6-3 in the SEC, but that’s a bit misleading as four of those six wins came against Mississippi State (twice), LSU, and Missouri. They do have a pair of wins against the RPI Top 50 -- but those were against Vanderbilt (#49) and Georgia (#50.) And yeah, sorry guys, but that loss to Texas counts as a bad loss.

Speaking of Georgia, the Bulldogs would have done themselves a lot of favors had they held on to beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena. But that’s been the story of Georgia’s season: they have a bunch of almost impressive wins. They took Florida to overtime in Gainesville, and they took Kentucky to overtime in Lexington. They dropped a close one to South Carolina at home, and they stayed competitive with Kansas back in November. Actually their profile is fairly similar to Tennessee’s -- except that Tennessee actually did beat Kentucky. And Tennessee didn’t lose to Oakland.

And then there’s Vanderbilt. Don’t laugh. The Commodores are 11-11 overall and 4-5 in the SEC; they’ve also played the country’s second-toughest schedule (and the toughest non-conference schedule.) They’ve won 3 of 4, and should have won four in a row, and that included a road win at Florida and a home win over Iowa State (who could get back into the RPI top 50.) As of today they don’t have a single loss to a team outside the RPI top 100 (though Bucknell is #98.) They wouldn’t make the tournament if it were selected today, but if they keep winning their SOS numbers can only help.

That’s probably it for the real bubble. Ole Miss could make things interesting if they get hot over the back end of the schedule. Texas A&M and Auburn are floating around the back end of the RPI top 100, but both of them are close to being in a spot where they would need to win the SEC’s automatic bid to get in — and I’m not all that sanguine about either of them doing enough to get on the bubble over the next month. Mississippi State played the #273 non-conference schedule and is auto-bid only right now.

LSU and Missouri are bad

There’s really not much to write about here. LSU and Missouri are a combined 0-16 against everybody else in the conference (LSU beat Missouri for their lone conference win), and I would be extremely surprised if either school retains its coach after the season.

LSU’s roster does not look like a team that should be 9-12 and 1-8 in the SEC. Somebody asked me in the comments about this yesterday, so I’ll just say that even a “merely” above-average coach could probably go at least .500 in the SEC with LSU’s roster, and a top-shelf coach could make the NCAA Tournament with this team. So yes, being 1-8 in the SEC is a massive failure.

Missouri is a different story: there may not be a coach in America that could go .500 in the SEC with this roster. But since Kim Anderson is in his third year and recruited the entire team, well, this is on him. Throw in the fact that it’s looking like Missouri will finish last in the conference for the third year in a row, and there’s really little reason to think he’ll be back — our sister site Rock M Nation is already talking about who the next coach will be.