SEC Hoping for Six in the Big Dance

The SEC is the home of the last two NCAA Tournament Champions and has produced three Final Four participants in the last two years. However, a combination of early departures to the NBA, transfers, injuries and job instability has the SEC struggling for respect in 2008.

The league's RPI is only No. 5 among the top conferences (according to kenpom.com), which makes you wonder how many SEC teams will be invited when the NCAA names the field of 65 on March 16.

I'm becoming convinced that the SEC will get six teams in, at least in part because Commissioner Mike Slive is chairman of the selection committee. The odds of it happening will increase as the top teams continue to dominate the lesser ones. As you watch the SEC race over the next month keep that in mind. Every time a bottom tied team beats one of the strongest ones it not only hurts that team, but one or two others that might be hanging our around the bubble where tournament consideration is concerned.

There are seven SEC teams with RPI rankings in the top 90 that can realistically think about getting into the big dance. None of them are "locks" in my view, but I only consider a team to be a "lock" if they can lose all their remaining games and still get in. Still I think several teams in the SEC are almost locks, and some others are battling for two or three additional slots.

Let's go through each SEC team's NCAA resume'.

Tennessee 20-2, 8-1, RPI No. 1 ----- The Vols are as close to a lock as you can be because a worst case scenario leaves them at 20-11. They have done a good job of accepting the role of heir apparent to the Gators in the SEC and look like a team that will be difficult to beat come tournament time. The Vols can score from all over the floor, but must improve on the boards in order to make a deep tournament run.

Arkansas 17-5, 6-2, RPI No. 33 ----- John Pelphrey's Razorbacks have struggled at times with the transition to a first year coach, but that appears to be behind them. Arkansas has as athletic and deep a group of big men as exist in the country, but their backcourt is rather thin. They need to avoid a team that presses effectively come tournament time, but I like them to win the West.

Vanderbilt 20-4, 5-4, RPI No. 11 ----- The Commodores entered the SEC on top of the world with a 15-0 record. However they have started out just 5-4 in league play. They are in great shape, but must take advantage of having five of their last seven games in Nashville. OJ Ogilvy doesn't like it when teams make him run a lot and their lack of athleticism in the post will be their eventual undoing.

Florida 19-5, 6-3, RPI No. 46 ----- The Gators played a woefully weak non conference schedule and that is why their RPI is as low as it is. But that schedule let America's youngest team get some experience and add up some wins which bought them some confidence. They need one more "good" win to go with the victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky and need to avoid any "bad" losses. Still you gotta believe they will get every consideration.

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The above four teams are in the best shape, and would be invited for certain if bids came out now. Three other SEC teams have a mix of factors working both for and against them.

Mississippi State 16-7, 7-2, RPI No. 52 ----- The Bulldogs lead the SEC West, but have little to point to with pride in their non conference slate. They absolutely must finish in the top two of the division to have a chance at an at-large bid. They have already beaten Ole Miss once, and if they do it again that will really strengthen their case. So, too would a win at Florida in three weeks.

Kentucky 12-9, 6-2, RPI No. 89 ----- Their non conference schedule is the toughest in the SEC, but they lost to every good team they played, plus a couple of lousy ones (San Diego, Gardner Webb). They have won five straight since losing to the Gators in overtime and that RPI will climb if they keep getting wins. They have six games remaining against the teams mentioned in this article and four wins in those six games will get some people's attention.

Ole Miss 16-5, 3-5, RPI No. 22 ----- This is without a doubt the toughest team to evaluate. The strong RPI should put the Rebels higher up the list, but they are on pace to finish 6-10 in the SEC. Ole Miss has lost four of their last five games and must right the ship in a hurry. They have some decent non-conference wins such as Clemson and South Alabama, but they must win at least five of their final eight SEC games. They have a pretty weak schedule, so the wins are doable, but their RPI will drop no matter what.

If I'm betting today, I'm betting on a strong finish by Kentucky and a fade by Ole Miss leaving the Rebels the odd team out when the NCAA Tournament field is announced. A week from now, I may see it quite differently.

Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Larry Vettel


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