After the Southeastern Conference earned only three NCAA tournament bids in 2013, commissioner Mike Slive asked Greg Shaheen, the former NCAA executive and NCAA tournament guru, to examine the league’s non-conference schedules.
The motivation was clear. Slive was not happy with the number of teams – an average of 3.8 per season in the past five years – the SEC was getting into the Field of 68. He wanted Shaheen to help.
The SEC made modest gains this year, increasing its non-conference RPI by more than a hundredth of a percentage point. But the league’s teams collectively won just six more games against Division I competition (123-52/117-58) before conference play than they did last season. SEC teams went just 3-15 against teams ranked in the top 25 of the RPI, 11-24 against the top 50 and 27-39 against the top 100.
So although the teams' schedules were slightly more difficult, the wins didn't come, and now the league's tournament outlook appears just as bleak as it did when the calendar flipped to 2014.
With more than a third of conference play in the books, there are seven teams that have a realistic (even if, in some cases, small) chance to earn an at-large bid. They are: No. 3 Florida, No. 11 Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Louisiana State.
Two of those teams, the Wildcats and Gators, are almost assuredly getting in. Assuming one of them wins the SEC tournament, that leaves the league with one at-large bid and those other teams on the bubble.
One major problem for those bubble teams is that they won't be able to improve their resumes in conference play. With only two teams ranked in the top 25 of the RPI and four in the top 50, there aren’t many quality wins to go around.
Even if one of these teams does manage to knock off the Wildcats or Gators, it will also need to take care of business against the league’s lower-tier. There are seven teams (Alabama: 87, Arkansas: 90, Georgia: 132, South Carolina 137, Mississippi State: 147, Texas A&M 152 and Auburn: 177) with RPIs of at least 80. They wield the power to wreck their conference foes' tournament hopes.
And the SEC's bubble teams haven't proven they can beat up the bottom half of the league. Tennessee lost to Texas A&M at home on Jan. 11. Ole Miss lost at Mississippi State on the same day. Missouri dropped a home game against Georgia on Jan. 8. The Bulldogs beat Arkansas in Athens on Jan. 18. LSU fell at Alabama last Saturday. The selection committee will not look favorably upon these results.
The team that might have the best shot to land the SEC its third NCAA tournament bid is Tennessee. The Volunteers got blown out at Florida over the weekend and have suffered two losses to teams ranked outside the RPI top-100 (against Texas El Paso and Texas A&M), but they do own two of the league’s top-50 RPI non-conference wins (against Virginia and Xavier) and a good strength of schedule (12).
It’s hard to predict how many teams will get in. Anywhere between two and five is plausible. Along with Kentucky and Florida, the Volunteers and Razorbacks are the only SEC teams that made SI.com’s latest bracket projection, which was published Monday.
The Bracket Matrix, a compilation of more than 60 projections from around the Internet, has Missouri and Tennessee in, with Arkansas and LSU making the First Four Out section. LSU and Missouri bolstered their resumés Tuesday night, as the (Mizzou) Tigers won at Arkansas and the (LSU) Tigers took down Kentucky at home, while Tennessee did well to take care of Ole Miss at home Wednesday night.
Bracket projections at this point of the season merely offer a snapshot of what the field could look like. There is plenty of basketball left to be played between now and selection Sunday.
Quantity of NCAA tournament bids is a common way to gauge conference strength. How the SEC measures up on that front will be decided in February and early March in arenas across the Southeast. But mostly in Lexington and Gainesville.