SEC Roundup: Final Descent

With only two games left in the regular season, SEC basketball has a lot on the line. Scout's Ben Love wonders if the league is making a case to send six teams dancing for the first time since 2008.

CONFERENCE STANDINGS


1. Kentucky (29-0, 16-0)
2. Arkansas (23-6, 12-4)
3. Texas A&M (20-8, 11-5)
4. LSU (21-8, 10-6)
5. Georgia (19-9, 10-6)
6. Ole Miss (19-10, 10-6)
7. Vanderbilt (17-12, 7-9)
8. Florida (14-15, 7-9)
9. Alabama (17-12, 7-9)
10. Tennessee (14-14, 6-10)
11. South Carolina (14-14, 5-11)
12. Mississippi State (12-17, 5-11)
13. Auburn (12-17, 4-12)
14. Missouri (8-21, 2-14)

As Southeastern Conference basketball begins its final descent toward conference tourney time and all the March Madness that follows, there’s a renewed sense of optimism in the league.

Juggernaut Kentucky still reigns supreme and undefeated after thrashing No. 18 Arkansas Saturday in Rupp Arena 84-67 in a game that wasn’t even remotely that close.

Despite Pig Sooie’s loss, the first in eight games for the Razorbacks, Arkansas represents a top-half of the league deeper and more postseason-qualified than the conference has known in years. LSU and Georgia, which both beat Ole Miss this week, are riding three-game winning streaks, getting hot at the right time to force a logjam at fourth with the Rebels.

Texas A&M sits a game ahead of all three 10-6 squads, helping offset a relatively weak non-conference slate for the Aggies. With all the latest developments, there’s a real chance the SEC sends five teams to the NCAA Tournament (see below), which would be like manna falling from the heavens after the league received three bids in each of the last two campaigns.

Also on a roll with two games left in the regular season is Vanderbilt. The Commodores, which moved from tied for 10th to tied for seventh in a week’s span, have quietly put together three consecutive wins, shooting their way into victory lane with a combined 34 made threes during the streak.

The cross-state Volunteers are heading in the opposite direction. Tennessee is on a five-game skid, the longest in the conference, and first-year coach Donnie Tyndall’s troops could be playing themselves out of a potential NIT berth.

Rounding out the league, Mississippi State and South Carolina switched places at 11th and 12th as Rick Ray’s Bulldogs have dropped four in a row.

TOURNEY WATCH: HOW MANY ARE IN?


First, a confession.

Over the last three seasons I’ve been conditioned to assume SEC teams other than Kentucky and Florida, when given their opportunities, will play their way out of the Big Dance rather than into it. Outside of a team like Tennessee last season, that’s just been the reality.

It became somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, too, as, in turn, the selection committee would write off bubble teams from the conference of Dixie due to the presumed (and in many cases, actual) weakness of the league after the top-heavy Wildcats and Gators.

The result: three teams made it last March, three the year before and four in March 2012.

So, when projecting how many teams the conference will get in for 2015, it’s been difficult in this space for me to project more than four.

Well, no longer. I now see no way the SEC sends less than five teams packing for bracketology.



Will there be room for six?
Simply put, the league’s earned it. There’s an adjustment of mentality that has to take place from recent years, but the proof is in the pudding when the top six teams are all positioned in the top 50 nationwide in terms of RPI – Kentucky (1), Arkansas (18), Georgia (32), Texas A&M (38), LSU (45) and Ole Miss (47).

The operative question becomes: Can the SEC possibly get six in for the first time since 2008?

And the truth is that can’t be answered yet, not before conference tournaments and not before unexpected automatic qualifiers steal bids from the power conferences, which happens on an annual basis.

Add it all up, and it’s my expectation today, as the calendar’s just flipped over to March, that five teams will safely don dancing shoes while a sixth could well slip to the NIT. The thing is, it’s virtually impossible to predict who’d be left out at this point.

Ole Miss is trending the wrong way, having lost two straight and on the bad side of tie-breakers with both LSU and Georgia. But, if the season ended now, it’d be hard to keep Andy Kennedy’s Rebels out.

Perhaps the bottom line is that one team out of the following quartet – Texas A&M, LSU, Georgia and Ole Miss – could be without a chair when the music stops on Selection Sunday.

They’ll all need to finish with a flurry to avoid being the (potential) team left standing, something that makes the SEC Tournament in Nashville from March 11-15 vitally important.

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Just for reference sake, here’s what conference tourney matchups would like if they went by current SEC standings.

March 11, Game One: No. 12 Mississippi State vs. No. 13 Auburn
March 11, Game Two: No. 11 South Carolina vs. No. 14 Missouri

March 12, Game Three: No. 8 Florida vs. No. 9 Alabama
March 12, Game Four: No. 5 Georgia vs. Game One Winner
March 12, Game Five: No. 7 Vanderbilt vs. No. 10 Tennessee
March 12, Game Six: No. 6 Ole Miss vs. Game Two Winner

March 13, Game Seven: No. 1 Kentucky vs. Game Three Winner
March 13, Game Seven: No. 4 LSU vs. Game Four Winner
March 13, Game Seven: No. 2 Arkansas vs. Game Five Winner
March 13, Game Seven: No. 3 Texas A&M vs. Game Six Winner

TAKING TIME: MASON AND STALLINGS


A pair of stories made waves across the conference this week, and while both deserve attention, one is more urgent and heart-wrenching than the other.

Former New York Knick Anthony Mason, father of Auburn Tiger senior Antoine Mason, passed away early Saturday morning at 48 years old after “Mase” was diagnosed with congestive heart failure earlier in the month of February.

At the core of one of the most physical NBA franchises ever, Mason helped guide the mid-nineties Knicks to the 1994 Finals and earned Sixth Man of the Year in 1995 during his 13-year professional career.

Antoine transferred to the Plains this summer as a graduate transfer from Niagara. He’s been a big part of Bruce Pearl’s first team at Auburn, averaging 15.1 points and 2.4 rebounds.

In a touch of class, while Antoine was back in New York with his mourning family, Texas A&M held a moment of silence in College Station for Anthony Mason before hosting Auburn on Saturday night.

A distinctly differently feeling emanated from Knoxville two nights prior.

In the aftermath of Vanderbilt’s 73-65 comeback win over rival Tennessee, head coach Kevin Stallings rightfully admonished freshman guard Wade Baldwin IV for taunting a Volunteer player in the postgame handshake line.

Where Stallings went a step or three overboard was in the language he used, caught on national television no less.

“Mother (expletive), we don’t do that,” Stallings barked. “I’ll (expletive) kill you.”

It’s obvious to anyone that’s seen the clip Stallings is mortified by his player’s behavior and is using that last sentence metaphorically, but it’s still a bad look.

Baldwin shared his feelings on the subject later that night via Twitter: “Coach Stallings is the best coach in America. I felt no offense to anything. We are both fiery people and that’s why I chose Vandy.”

Well said from the player and, in my personal opinion, it’s the right move that Stallings has not been suspended.

Yes, his moment was caught on television, but what isn’t these days? That shouldn’t blur his message. Sportsmanship comes first and, in that moment, it meant more to Stallings than anything else.

He’ll choose his words more judiciously next time, but there’s one thing I guarantee won’t happen again – Baldwin repeating his actions.

WHAT’S COMING NEXT


The SEC’s final week of regular-season play again sees every member team play one home and one away. Kentucky at Georgia in the midweek is the centerpiece game, but there are a number of important contests league-wide with potentially far-reaching impact.

Alabama: vs. Ole Miss (Tues), at Texas A&M (Sat)
Arkansas: at South Carolina (Thurs), vs. LSU (Sat)
Auburn: at Missouri (Tues), vs. Georgia (Sat)
Florida: vs. Texas A&M (Tues), at Kentucky (Sat)
Georgia: vs. Kentucky (Tues), at Auburn (Sat)
Kentucky: at Georgia (Tues), vs. Florida (Sat)
LSU: vs. Tennessee (Wed), at Arkansas (Sat)
Mississippi State: at Vanderbilt (Wed), vs. Missouri (Sat)
Missouri: vs. Auburn (Tues), at Mississippi State (Sat)
Ole Miss: at Alabama (Tues), vs. Vanderbilt (Sat)
South Carolina: vs. Arkansas (Thurs), at Tennessee (Sat)
Tennessee: at LSU (Wed), vs. South Carolina (Sat)
Texas A&M: at Florida (Tues), vs. Alabama (Sat)
Vanderbilt: vs. Mississippi State (Wed), at Ole Miss (Sat)



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