VETTEL: Looking inside the NCAA bubble

'Tis the season for every "expert" on college basketball to offer up their thoughts on the fabled NCAA Basketball Tournament "bubble" and I'll be darned if I'm doing to be left out. Actually it is too early to think about teams on or off the bubble… that's really for the week of conference tournaments. Instead let's evaluate the eight Southeastern Conference teams still with realistic chances at earning a trip to the Big Dance and what will key each of their future opportunities.

For the purposes of this analysis, the ranking number I will be using is based on the ESPN Insider-RPI. Historically speaking a team in the top forty should be able to count on getting in, while teams in the 41-50 range are the bubble teams subject to getting bounced out depending on how many "undeserving" teams pull off upsets and win their conference tournaments. Teams ranked in the 30-39 range still have some work to do, while teams in the 21-29 area just have to avoid a major collapse. Teams that are top 20 this late in the year are locks.

SEC Has Two Absolute Mortal Locks

An absolute mortal lock is a team which has done EVERYTHING necessary to get into the tournament and nothing they do from here on in could cost them that spot. Kentucky and Alabama can count on being part of the field of 64. The Crimson Tide was expected to be good, but a 20-4 record and number 11 ranking has to be a bit of a surprise. Kentucky, sitting comfortably at 19-3 with a number 12 spot in the ratings can also rest assured the Big Blue will be sent somewhere.

Three Teams Still Have Work To Do

Mississippi State is the next SEC team at 32, but the Bulldogs are tracking downward at the worst time of the year. The return of Winsome Frazier should help the Bulldogs return to their early-season form, but State needs a significant win or two. Right now, their win over Florida is the top entry on their resume.

Florida's number 36 spot has the Gators in good position as well, particularly with a great win over Alabama. Another high caliber win would be a welcome plus and could help propel the Gators to a number six seed or higher. Saturday at LSU is a chance for that as is Kentucky at home.

Speaking of LSU, the Bayou Bengals with their big man tandem of Brandon Bass and Glenn Davis is a load to handle and gives them a chance every time out. While LSU's number 39 ranking and 14-8 record is less than awe-inspiring, their next two games against Florida and Alabama are both at home and present a golden opportunity to raise the Tigers' prospects.

Wishin' And Hopin'

That Dusty Springfield classic best describes the chances for the remaining trio of SEC hopefuls. South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Arkansas cannot be completely eliminated form the conversation but they're pretty close. Let's start with the Gamecocks who picked up a huge win over Kentucky Tuesday night. Dave Odom's team is, like LSU, just 14-8 and their number 56 ranking is bad news. They have to rebound emotionally in a hurry against Alabama Saturday and host Florida a week form Sunday. Win both, and they have a real shot. The game at Vandy March 2 could end up being a bubble-buster type game, but I suspect not.

Vandy, believe it or not has a number 59 rating despite a 15-10 record. They probably need four of their last five regular season games to be in the at-large mix. That'll be tough with road game against Florida and LSU.

Arkansas is a surprise team that took advantage of an incredibly weak non-conference schedule to get off to a nice start. Stan Heath deserves a ton of credit for getting this team to 17 wins but with a rating of number 66 even winning out would likely leave them on the outside looking in.

The Keys Down the Stretch

One of the most important things for the SEC to get at least five and ideally six teams into the tournament is the failure of the bottom tier. Auburn's win over South Carolina last weekend is the kind of thing that just kills a team down the stretch. The top five teams can afford losses to each other, but the next three teams are fighting for one slot unless they can take one from the teams at the top.

Realistically I think the SEC gets five bids with Mississippi State and Florida grabbing the next two. LSU will have to finish strongly to hold off South Carolina. The Gamecocks have the best shot of the bottom three with their win over Kentucky.

Who's In Charge at Rocky Top?

I guess the University of Tennessee has not gotten the memo regarding the need to increase academic performance among student-athletes. The Vols look like, well, dumb hillbillies with their abandonment of a proposed attendance policy for Vols' student-athletes. Excuse me, they didn't abandon A proposed policy.. they abandoned THEIR OWN.

A policy written by the faculty representative for athletics and signed off to by the assistant provost, Athletic Director and both basketball coaches was squashed when football coach Phillip Fulmer went to the President to complain the policy would put Tennessee at a competitive disadvantage with other SEC schools.

What an embarrassment! What Fulmer basically got his President to say was, "We at Tennessee will not have any academic rules that are more stringent on or demanding of our student-athletes than the most lax rules at our most lowly ranked academic competitor in the SEC."

For any school President to do this is a joke. For Tennessee to make this decision within two years of an on-campus academic scandal is disgraceful. Enough to make them work on the school song:

Glad that I'm a jock on Rocky Top, don't go to classes 'round here Tutors take our tests on Rocky Top while we drink moonshine and beer

Fulmer's got our back on Rocky Top, long as we keep makin' plays Don't even got to meet our professors, cuz touchdowns earn us straight A's

Rocky Top You'll always be, easy as A-B-C Good Ole Rocky Top, don't 'spect class work from me!

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Have a great week.

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