Over the past two years, SEC basketball has struggled to save face nationally in March. Last year, only four teams made the tournament, and although Tennessee and Kentucky made the conference proud with their runs to the Elite Eight, Florida and Vanderbilt both had early exits with losses to mid-majors, with Vandy's loss to 13-seed Murray St. a particular black eye for the conference. The prior year, the SEC did even worse, placing only three teams in the tournament, with no one earning higher than an eight seed and only LSU making it out of the first round. To make matters worse, Mississippi St. only made it in 2009 after winning the SEC Tournament, meaning we would have only placed two teams without MSU's automatic bid.
Many have said that the SEC has returned to form on the hardwood this season, with a handful of teams spending large portions of the season ranked and several teams spending significant portions of the season in various prognosticators' bracketologies. However, as the SEC Tournament nears, it looks like once again many SEC teams have work left to do if they want to feel comfortable heading into Selection Sunday. Joe Lunardi has both Alabama and Georgia on the outside looking in; he also has Tennessee at a ninth seed, clearly not somewhere they can feel comfortable if they drop their first tournament game. Let's take a closer look to see what everyone needs to do to feel good about their chances.
Florida Gators. At 24-6 and with an SEC regular-season title wrapped up, the Gators look to do no worse than a four or five seed. If they can win the SEC Tournament, they may be able to move up to a two seed. However, I have a hard time seeing them jump up to a one seed. I'm also not sure what I think about this team's chances to make a deep run. They're good and experienced, but they seem to lack that "it" factor that sets the elite teams apart.
Kentucky Wildcats. Kentucky is 22-8 and has come on strong over the final weeks. This is a very talented team and I think they have the potential to go further than Florida if they get hot. They should receive anywhere from a three-to-five seed depending on how they do in the SECT.
Vanderbilt Commodores. The Commodores haven't helped their standing with their failure to win big games down the stretch. They once looked like a four or five seed, but Lunardi now has them at six. That could rise or fall slightly depending on how they play at the SECT. Even if they lose early, though, they should be in with no worse than an eight seed.
Tennessee Volunteers. It's hard to imagine a team with a road victory over Pitt being on the bubble, but the Vols' uneven play down the stretch has them in a tough spot. Their RPI is extremely marginal and the NCAA may frown on their seeming regression over the course of the season. Most bracketologists seem to think they're in, though, so I would say they should be OK with one win in the SECT. They really want to avoid losing their opener to Arkansas, though, which could do serious damage to their RPI.
Alabama Crimson Tide. It's hard to believe that a team with a 12-4 conference record could be on the outside looking in, but that's where the Tide find themselves. Their RPI is up after their win over Georgia, but it's still marginal and their lack of quality victories may hurt them in the selection committee's eyes. The game they lost to Mississippi down the stretch may come back to haunt them. I think they need to win at least one and maybe two wins to get in. If they're left out, they'll be the first SEC team with more than 11 conference wins not to go dancing.
Georgia Bulldogs. The Dawgs have had one of their best years in recent memory, but they've also consistently failed to close the deal and punch their ticket to the dance. That leaves them with work to do in the SECT. They definitely need to win their opener with RPI bottomfeeder Auburn, which may be more difficult than anticipated considering the Tigers' improvement over the course of the year. If they can win that one, the second-round game against Alabama will be big for both teams.
Outside Looking In
The two Mississippi schools and Arkansas are each likely locks for the NIT but have little chance to make the NCAAs without winning the SECT outright. The one that I think has a chance to do that is Mississippi St. The Bulldogs have underachieved all year, but they've been on a bit of a roll down the stretch and have the benefit of a first-round bye. If this talented team can get its act together for a few days, it could find itself playing for an automatic bid.