College Basketball Coverage: The Crazy SEC Bubble

Just when we thought they were in, they pulled themselves back out. That might be our operative phrase for a couple SEC basketball teams, most notably Kentucky and Tennessee after this past weekend’s games. This a conference that is crazy on the NCAA Tournament bubble right now—while Florida locked up a share of the league title and Missouri is comfortably in the field, it’s anybody’s guess with at least five other teams.

We’ll start with Kentucky, because they were in position to simplify this conversation. I won’t say a win at Arkansas this past Saturday we would have put the Wildcats in the field—UK was projected as a #12 seed by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi on Friday—but a nice road win would certainly have made them comfortable and just as importantly, it probably would have knocked the Razorbacks out.

Kentucky has won three of five since losing center Nerlens Noel for the season to a torn ACL. One of the wins was a big home victory over Missouri, sending the Selection Committee a message that the ‘Cats could still compete without their most noteworthy player. I don’t know that there’s been a drastic difference in Kentucky’s play with or without Noels, so why should the committee factor that in? John Calipari’s team has to ride point guard Archie Goodwin, forward Alex Poythress and get some more rebounding help from seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein. Unsurprisingly, all three players are freshman. It also wouldn’t hurt if 6’10” forward Kyle Wiltjer, the team’s best three-point shooter got hot in next Saturday’s regular season finale with Florida.

As for Arkansas, they weren’t officially on the Lunardi radar coming into the weekend, at least not being among the first eight teams the bracketologist had missing the field. The Hogs are 74th in RPI, which isn’t overly impressive. But they have two factors going for them—they’re an improving team and they went out and played a good non-conference schedule. Granted, it was mostly futile, with losses to Arizona State, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Michigan. But there was a win over Oklahoma mixed in there and the issue of rewarding teams for simply playing—as opposed to actually beating—good teams is one of those perpetual debates that seems to get handled differently every year. The same goes for the amount of weight given to a team’s recent form—we know improvement counts for something, but for how much?

If getting better and testing oneself outside of the league are given credence, the Hogs still have a shot. They’ve got a big game at Missouri on Tuesday night (7 PM ET, ESPN) and a win would eliminate the biggest flaw on their resume—there are no quality road wins. The season’s best moments, the wins over Florida, Missouri and Kentucky, have all come at home.  Arkansas has two good scorers in guard B.J. Young and forward Marshawn Powell, and both need to be at their best in Columbia come Tuesday.

Tennessee is shaping up to be the equivalent of the Mitt Romney campaign. Most of the season was like the early part of the campaign—they weren’t bad, but no one was predicting ultimate victory. Then came a six-game win streak that was analogous to Romney in the first debate. In Tennessee’s case it was capped by a home win over Florida this past week. All the momentum was with now with the Vols and with talented junior scorer Jordan McRae leading the way, an NCAA bid was within their grasp. Then the balloon deflated and that momentum was a thing of the past. Tennessee lost to Georgia yesterday, in spite of 35 from McRae. It’s not an Election Night yet in college basketball, so I suppose the Vols can still recover. But at minimum they need to win a home game with Missouri next weekend and would probably need something significant in the SEC Tournament.

I’m disappointed with Tennessee, but I’m positively disgusted with Ole Miss. The Rebels are in a free fall, having dropped six of ten and a Saturday loss to lowly Mississippi State was the nadir of the season. The Rebs have also lost to mediocre South Carolina within this span. Marshall Henderson is still an electric a player as there is in the league, but he’s not exactly discerning on his shot selection, so his 20 ppg comes with certain inefficiencies. And while forwards Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner are good, there’s no one else stepping up to provide depth. Ole Miss is 59th in the RPI and is going to need a splash in the conference tournament to get into the NCAA and save head coach Andy Kennedy’s job.

TheSportsNotebook’s college basketball coverage zeroed in on Alabama a couple weeks ago, so you can read more about the Tide there. Their loss to Florida realistically ended any SEC title hopes, and at 60th in the RPI, I think ‘Bama is in serious trouble for the NCAA Tournament. Their game with Ole Miss on Tuesday (7 PM ET, ESPNU) is realistically an elimination game and a home date with Georgia to end the year doesn’t leave an opportunity to impress.

I suppose due diligence requires a mention of Texas A&M and LSU, since they have the overall records—17-12 & 17-10 respectively—to be on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament and they play head-to-head on Wednesday.  But both have RPIs in the 80s, and in the case of A&M, they’ve lost nine of thirteen. Either team would have to get to the final of the conference tournament to even make it a discussion (and obviously if they won the final it would eliminate the need for discussion).

What it boils down to is that when this league converges on Nashville for the tournament on March 14, there’s going to be a lot of shaking out to do. Because just when you think teams from the SEC have finally played their way into the Dance, they pull themselves back out.