Joe Lunardi still has us in his "Last Four In," this time playing Illinois with a likely second-round game against UCLA if we were to win in the first. Illinois would be an interesting matchup, as the Illini, like many Big 10 teams, play a much slower, defensive style than we do. Many other bracketologists seem fairly skeptical of us, but in my experience Lunardi is the most reliable. Lunardi called the field perfectly last year and basically has this down to a science, whereas many of the other talking heads that are touting bubble teams like Maryland from the big conferences or media darlings like Davidson are going on partial, sometimes biased information.
All of that said, we are squarely on the bubble right now and really need a good SECT showing to solidify our resume. I formerly thought we would only need one SECT win to get in the NCAAs, and while that still might do it, two wins and a finals berth might be necessary for us to really be able to breathe easy some selection time. If we lose our first game, I expect we're headed back to our old stomping grounds in the NIT. It may not be fair that an Eastern Division champion with 10 SEC wins has to sweat through so much anxiety, but the fact is that the basketball world perceives the SEC as down this year. While we have a serviceable RPI, our soft non-con and the weakness of the SEC means that we lack the number of quality wins needed to be considered a lock.
The SECT tournament brackets have us taking on the winner of UGA-Mississippi State on Friday. Obviously, we match up well with the Eastern Dawgs (who doesn't?), so it would be nice to see them pull off one more upset before suffering another beat down against us. However, Mississippi State is the likely opponent. While they beat us in Starkville earlier this year and Jarvis Varnado presents difficulties for us, I like our chances against them in the rematch. First of all, the Starkville game wasn't one of our best. We seemed to have control for most of the game but never managed to build a big lead, and when State took the lead late, we failed to convert on some golden opportunities. People figure that State relies on Varnado, but they're really more of a perimeter team offensively, and that plays into our hands. We just couldn't convert enough offensively against them to win. We were especially inept from the foul-line, shooting only 55%; we're doing better in that category now. The game was on the road, and if we were able to play them so closely in Starkville, we should be able to hang with them on a neutral court. It's also worth noting that State isn't a particularly deep team. While they played 10 players against us in Starkville, all their starters played over 30 minutes. If they have to wear out their starters against UGA the night before playing us (and they might not if they can run away with it), their fatigue will play to our advantage.
If we beat State, we'll play either Kentucky, LSU, or Ole Miss in the semis. The 'Cats and the Rebs face off in the first round, with LSU getting the winner. LSU will likely be our opponent, but I wouldn't count Kentucky or Ole Miss out, considering that both are capable teams on good days. Both are also probably easier matchups for us than LSU, which is an athletic, running team similar to Tennessee. It should be no mystery why we're 3-0 against UK and Ole Miss with two blowout wins and 0-3 with two blowout losses against UT and LSU. It would also be nice to get to play a team that's playing it's third game in three days. On the other hand, beating LSU would probably do wonders for our resume, considering that we're perceived as a team that doesn't have a signature win.
At any rate, I can't emphasize enough that the SECT is huge for this team. Moreover, it's really wide open this year. Parity reigns in the SEC, and I could just as well see us winning the tournament as losing to UGA or Mississippi State. Let's hope it's the former; we won't have to worry about whether one or two wins is good enough if we win the thing and take the automatic berth.
For those looking for more March Madness info, check out Searching for Billy Edelin and Blogging the Bracket for some excellent coverage.