The NCAA Tournament has grown in recent years to a bizarre 68-team format that includes a pair of play-in games for 11- or 12-seeds. Aside from aiding television viewership, having play-in games for teams not on the extreme outside of the tourney bubble makes zero sense. Logic suggests those games should be reserved for squads fighting for the 16-seeds, but the networks know that a few big conference teams will provide better ratings for the “First Four” than four games featuring the likes of North Carolina at Winston-Marlboro, Texas Amish University and Eastern Adirondacks State.
That said, no one should be happier about the fact that some big schools can play their way into the dance than the folks in the SEC office. If not for those play-in games, the Southeastern Conference is looking like a two-bid league at best. Heck, it should be a two-bid league.
Obviously, the SEC’s bubble teams will be compared to bubble teams from across America, not just against one another. As of this morning, however, only two SEC squads rank in the top 49 of the all-important RPI. Missouri’s loss to Georgia dropped the Tigers to #50. Tennessee ranks 56th, LSU 68th and everyone else is ranked 70th (Arkansas) or worse.
Using the NCAA’s official RPI from the past three Selection Sundays (since the field expanded to 68), we’ve found the following to be true:
* There were 31 automatic bids and 37 at-large bids into the 2011, 2012 and 2013 tournaments. (This year there will be 32 automatic bids and just 36 at-large bids.)
* Of the 111 at-large bids awarded over the last three years, 82 have gone to teams ranked between 1 and 39 in RPI.
* Of those same 111 at-large bids, just 15 have gone to teams ranked between 40 and 49.
* Of those 111 at-large bids, only 11 have gone to teams ranked between 50 and 59.
* And only three bids have gone to squads ranked 60 or higher.
From a percentage point of view, teams ranked in the top 39 of the RPI on Selection Sunday have taken up 73.8% of the at-large bids. Only 13.5% have gone to teams ranked between 40 and 49. Just 9.9% have gone to teams ranked between 50 and 59. Only 2.7% of the at-large bids the last three years have gone to teams ranked 60 or higher in the RPI.
That tells us that as of today, Missouri and Tennessee would likely stand about a 10% chance of making the field. And since neither of those squads have league records over the .500 mark in an SEC currently ranked as just the seventh best league, 10% might be pushing it.
However you slice it — by the numbers or via “the eye test” — only Florida and Kentucky appear NCAA-worthy as of today. Can Missouri or Tennessee do enough over the final two weeks and the SEC Tournament to improve their chances? Sure. But from what we’ve seen of them, what gives anyone the confidence that they will take advantage of those opportunities?
It’s certainly fitting that Mizzou’s damaging loss last night came to Georgia. The Bulldogs, as we’ve noted on several occasions, expose all that’s wrong with SEC hoops this season. UGA went just 6-6 in non-conference play and they’ve lost four games to teams outside the RPI top 100. Yet they now stand firmly in the third place in the SEC with a gaudy 10-5 mark (which should cool the seat from underneath Mark Fox’s rear).
The Southeastern Conference is a bad basketball conference yet again this season. It appears to get worse with each game played. And looking at the numbers, there’s just a 10% or so chance — as of today — that the league will receive a third at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
So thank goodness for those play-in games. Without them, the SEC’s odds for grabbing a third invitation would be even longer.