When the 2011-12 season started, it was expected that five Southeastern Conference teams would earn their way into the NCAA Tournament: Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi State. With one weekend and six regular-season games remaining, it looks as though the SEC will land only four teams in the pool. Spin it however you like, that would have to be considered a “down year” for the league.
Below are the up-to-date resumes for each and every SEC team… even those with no hope of earning an at-large NCAA bid. As we’ve said many times before, the NCAA selection committee uses math, numbers and digits to decide who goes dancing. Bracketologists wouldn’t be so accurate each year if guesswork, hunches and the eye test played bigger roles.
So we’ll look only at who fits the usual tourney profile (teams with good RPI, good strength of schedule, wins over RPI Top 50 teams, and quality road wins). There is always an exception or two, but the odds of being one of those exceptions just aren’t good. Remember, it’s been at least five seasons since a team with an RPI lower than 67 grabbed an at-large bid. And the SEC’s second-best league record last year — Alabama at 12-4 — was snubbed due to a low RPI and bad early-season losses.
While the selection committee once looked closely at the final 10 or 12 games of a season, those journalists who’ve gone through official NCAA mock tourney draws have repeatedly said that that area has been de-emphasized to the point of not even showing up on members’ computer screens. The NCAA wanted teams to schedule better foes early in the season, so they stopped giving extra weight to end of the year results. And why not? Those results do count… they just count evenly with the early results. So if you’re thinking your team will get extra love for a hot finish, again, remember what happened to Bama last season.
Heading into the season’s final Saturday and Sunday of action, here’s how things stand:
||vs Top 50
||vs Top 100
||Road W vs Top 100
||L Outside Top 100
|Kentucky (29-1, 15-0)
|Vanderbilt (21-9, 10-5)
|Florida (22-8, 10-5)
|Alabama (20-9, 9-6)
|Ole Miss (17-12, 7-8)
|Miss. State (20-10, 7-8)
|Tennessee (17-13, 9-6)
|LSU (17-12, 7-8)
|Arkansas (18-12, 6-9)
|Georgia (13-16, 4-11)
|Auburn (14-15, 4-11)
|S. Carolina (10-19, 2-13)
What do the numbers reveal? Who fits the usual NCAA tourney profile?
Well, South Carolina, Auburn, Georgia, Arkansas and LSU are now out of the discussion altogether.
Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida are all guaranteed locks.
That leaves four teams to examine:
Alabama — The Crimson Tide will get an at-large bid. Their body of work has been solid and has come against a Top 20 schedule. The committee will also likely consider that a string of midseason SEC losses could possibly be blamed on Anthony Grant’s firm discipline. The only thing keeping Bama from “lock” status is their lack of a quality road win, though they did beat Wichita State (RPI 11) and Purdue (RPI 43) on a neutral court.
Ole Miss — A 3-5 February will prove to be poison for the Rebels. On the bubble entering last month, UM went just 1-5 against Top 50 opponents over that stretch. In other words, they had several chances to ratchet up their RPI and their record. They failed to take advantage, so Mississippi’s chances of grabbing an at-large bid are nil.
Miss. State vs Tennessee — If the SEC is to get a fifth bid, either State or Tennessee will get it. Let’s compare the two squads. MSU has the better RPI (though it’s as low as a team can go and still get in) and has 20 wins on its resume. Tennessee started slow and drags around four losses to teams outside the RPI Top 100 (while State has three such losses). A January loss at Georgia stands out as a real hit on the Vols’ chances at the moment. UT has the better conference record, but that didn’t mean much for Alabama last season. Also, State beat the Vols head-to-head in Starkville in a last-possession type game. In addition, the Dogs have a better record versus Top 50 and Top 100 foes. The eye test says that Tennessee is playing better basketball and deserves the slot. The numbers — which the selection committee stick to like glue 99% of the time — suggest MSU is still the safer bet (though we use the term “safer” very, very loosely).
The battle between State and Tennessee will likely come down to their SEC Tournament performances. MSU could land anywhere between a #6 and a #9 seed in New Orleans. Tennessee could finish #2, #3 or #5 depending on the weekend’s action.
If you’re a fan of one of those teams and you’re wanting the easiest path to the automatic bid provided by winning the whole darn tourney, the advantage goes to Tennessee.
If you’re a fan of one of those teams and you’re hoping to see your team help its strength of schedule and its RPI, the advantage is Mississippi State’s. The Bulldogs, with a lower seed, would figure to face more highly-ranked foes should the chalk hold throughout the tourney.
Interestingly, if Tennessee finishes with the #2 or #3 seed and a first-round bye, the Volunteers could conceivably play the Bulldogs in a second round game that could serve as a winner-take-all battle for a fifth NCAA bid.
But as of right now, neither team fits the typical NCAA Tournament profile. The math doesn’t quite add up yet for either squad.
The math tells us — and the math is almost always right — that Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida and Alabama will represent the SEC in the Big Dance.
Mississippi State and Tennessee still have work to do to grab a potential fifth bid.