February is here and teams across the SEC and college basketball have one final month to impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. The start of February in college basketball marks the start of the bubble conversation. Although, there have been plenty out there that have had more than enough to say about teams bubble status over the last month. According to Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology, were the NCAA Tournament to start today the SEC would have 7 teams into the field, with Missouri and Georgia being the first two teams left out of the tournament. Texas A&M is listed in Lunardi’s Last Four Byes, despite the Aggies 3-6 record and overall poor play the past month. Arkansas and Alabama are projected as 9 seeds, while the rest of the SEC teams in the field are no lower than a 6 seed. Ole Miss, LSU and Vanderbilt appear to be the only teams not worth considering at this moment for the NCAA Tournament
South Carolina and Mississippi State present interesting cases. The Gamecocks have picked up wins against Kentucky and Florida in the last two weeks and came close against then-No.14 Texas Tech at home last Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge but were unable to hold onto a late lead. The wins over the Wildcats and Gators are going to be better than most teams vying for the last few spots in the field. The problem for South Carolina is the lack of a quality wins out of conference. The matchup with the Red Raiders presented one last opportunity after failing to defeat RPI No.5 Clemson back in December. The strength of schedule of 27 is a number that the committee will look favorably upon and the RPI of 59 isn’t terrible but certainly needs work. Another issue for Frank Martin and his team is Wednesday night’s home loss to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs currently sit two spots back of the Gamecocks in the RPI at 61 but have considerably worse SOS numbers at 101 overall and a non-conference SOS of 345, according to KenPom. The Bulldogs do have the head-to-head and wins over Top 50 RPI teams in Arkansas and Missouri. Wednesday night’s win also gave the Bulldogs their first win on the road. They’re going to need more of those, although Missouri and Texas A&M are the only teams remaining their schedule that provide Top 50 opportunities on the road, to convince the committee to ignore the non-conference schedule. Looking in year’s past, a precedent has been set for major and mid-major conference teams that if you don’t challenge yourself outside of your league schedule, come Selection Sunday you’ll be waiting for your postseason assignment on the NIT Selection Show via ESPNU.
Arkansas has a Top 30 RPI (28) and key wins against Oklahoma, Tennessee and Missouri. More importantly, the Hogs don’t have a bad loss, in terms of RPI. The Razorbacks would be smart to hold serve at home, especially when A&M, Kentucky and Auburn come to town and avoid disaster against Ole Miss and Vandy, and maybe steal one on the road against either Alabama or Missouri, to feel secure on Selection Sunday.
For Alabama, the Tide sits at 40 in the RPI and have an SOS of 10, both are extremely favorable metrics. The Crimson Tide’s win last Saturday against Oklahoma will go a long way to earning them a spot into the field, along with the win at home a few weeks back against SEC leader Auburn, who is seventh in the RPI. Like Mississippi State, the Tide hasn’t been good on the road having on true road victory this season. That’s certainly a number that will have to change in order for Avery Johnson’s ballclub to move away from a potential 9 seed. Opportunities at Florida, Kentucky, Auburn and A&M also await.
As for the two teams sitting on the outside, Missouri made an excellent case for themselves with Wednesday night’s win in Tuscaloosa. The RPI skews towards road wins and the committee also pays considerable attention to how teams perform on the road. Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers have a Top 50 RPI (35) and an SOS of 15 that puts them squarely into the conversation. The win against Tennessee also helps, but the Tigers are going to need to find another Top 50 win or two, Saturday at home against Kentucky would be a start, then stay at or above .500 in the SEC. Hanging around until Friday of the SEC Tournament, held in St. Louis, would also be a good idea.
2. Continuing to look at potential brackets, it may be time to start considering the real possibility of Tennessee having a shot at playing in Nashville for the first and second round. The Volunteers are currently projected by Lunardi as a 4 seed playing in Boise. Lunardi has 2 seeds in Auburn and Xavier ahead of the Vols in the pecking order for Nashville. It’ll be interesting to see where the committee views the best location to send the Musketeers were they to continue winning. Nashville, Detroit and Pittsburgh are essentially equidistant in terms of hours by car, just over four each way, from Cincinnati, so either location could be found suitable. Of course, that’s dependant on how teams like Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, West Virginia, Villanova, Lousiville and Kentucky fair over this next month. Were Tennessee to climb back into the RPI Top 10 and finish no lower than third in the SEC, I could see the Vols climbing up to 3 seed and being gifted a short trip to Nashville to play in front of a partisan crowd.
The same could be said for Auburn if they maintain their positioning as a 2 seed and win the SEC. It feels pretty safe to assume that whoever ends up winning the SEC regular season will be situated rather nicely to play in Nashville. The question that we need to start asking for Bruce Pearl and the Tigers is, can they sneak their way into the number one seed conversation? I don’t see any way how either Virginia, Villanova or Purdue fall out of number one seed positioning, but I do think that Duke and Kansas, more so the Blue Devils, are vulnerable. Kansas, as we all should know by now, has won at least a share of the Big 12 title the last 14 years, the conversation has been whether the Jayhawks could maintain that in this year’s Big 12, but by all estimations as the month starts, they’re headed to number 15 in the nation’s highest-rated conference. Although, if in fact Kansas does get knocked off of their perch, I can see a scenario where the selection committee doesn’t have them in as a one. And this is exactly why I find Duke’s positioning weak. The Blue Devils loss at home to Virginia all but wrapped up the ACC regular season for the Cavaliers as they sit three games above the Devils and haven’t shown any signs of losing a game, let alone more than three. Duke will likely have the higher quality wins having defeated Michigan State and Florida back at the PK80, but Auburn would have a conference title and solid wins in their own right. In that case, I put the Tigers on the one line.
3. Well, it appears that Kentucky’s win over West Virginia wasn’t a harbinger of the good things to come but rather an outlier result to what this team has been all season. The win at West Virginia was a great win for the confidence of Kentucky and in the manner that it was done, but after Tuesday night’s results you’d be foolish to think that somehow that win signified that the Wildcats had “turned the corner.” First off, the overtime win against Vanderbilt where the Cats had to fight back from down 14 points in the second half and luck out thanks to poor free throw shooting and an unfortunate foul to even get into the overtime, where they won it in the final seconds thanks to a Quade Green layup, says all that you need to know in terms of Kentucky’s development. They’re still not “there” yet when you think of teams that can make a run to the Final Four. Consistency is extremely important and this team doesn’t have it, even when they’re playing the leagues worst team.
Secondly, the Mountaineers are in freefall mode. WVU lost the same night to Iowa State by 16. The same Cyclone team that got drubbed by 23 points and was held to 45 overall by Tennessee. Yes, the same Vols team that beat Kentucky by 11 back in early January. So, Kentucky came back on a team in West Virginia that has now lost five of six and has become susceptible to blowing large leads at home and getting embarrassed on the road. I don’t want to take away from the win because the Mountaineers were the No. 7 team in the nation when they lost to Kentucky, but at this point that win only shows that John Calipari’s team is capable of coming back from large deficits when Kevin Knox drops 34 points and they commit to playing defense and not turning the ball over. Other than that, it doesn’t appear to be all that great of a win. Go figure.
4. Sticking with Vanderbilt, I’ve thought all season long that the Commodores were a good team that struggled defensively and at closing games out. Over the past two weeks, the Commodores have been able to close out games at home against LSU and TCU, in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The majority of the opportunities that the Dores have had to close games have come at home. Tuesday night at Kentucky was the first time during conference play that it looked like Vanderbilt was set up to win a road game, considering their 14-point second half lead. Well, as we know seniors Jeff Roberson and Riley LaChance, again versus the Wildcats, missed two critical free throws and an ill-timed foul by Joe Toye sent Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a.k.a. The Vandy Killer, to the line to send the game into overtime. There, Vandy still had a chance to win despite falling down by four in the extra frame, but as things tend to go in Lexington, the crowd comes alive and Kentucky survives.
Back to me thinking that Vanderbilt was a good team who just didn’t have the luck and suffered from an extremely tough schedule. Forget all that. Only bad teams lose the way the Commodores did on Tuesday night in Lexington. I don’t think there’s another scenario that Bryce Drew would’ve prefered than to have both Roberson and LaChance at the line to close the game out. Roberson was a perfect 9 for 9 when he took his steps up to the line with the Commodores up 1 before splitting a pair. Yes, there’s some blame to be placed on Toye, but basketball instincts tell a player to go for the loose ball, even in that situation, it just turned out that he wasn’t quick enough, and that resulted in a game-changing foul. But that is avoided if either LaChance or Roberson make their free throws late. Two seniors that have been terrific, especially since fellow senior Matthew Fisher-Davis’ career ended prematurely with a shoulder injury, failing to make plays that could’ve brought some hope to what has certainly been a forgettable campaign. My heart goes out to those guys, but man you have to execute late. I doubt that Vanderbilt will go down the drain from here, if this isn’t already the drain, because the culture that Drew has established on West End won’t allow it, but I know now for certain that this is indeed a bad team.
5. Looking to the weekend:
- Break out the Bubblicious when tuning into Georgia and Mississippi State. As I stated above, these are two teams that are going to be fighting every night here on out to get off of the bubble and into the tournament field. Georgia has more leeway in this one but a road win would do wonders for their RPI.
- Missouri could complete a strong week with a win over Kentucky at home. The Tigers have been among the best three-point shooting teams in the SEC, ranking third, while the Wildcats have been among the worst, ranking dead last in the league in three-point makes. Look to that to play a factor.
- South Carolina could use another road win and A&M could just use a win to get closer to .500.
- Alabama hasn’t been great away from home, but it looks like Florida might be back into another one of their ruts. Great time for the Tide to capitalize on a marquee road win opportunity.
#21 Kentucky (17-5, 6-3 SEC ) at Missouri (14-8, 4-5 SEC) 1:00 PM CT CBS
South Carolina (13-9, 4-5 SEC) at Texas A&M (14-8, 3-6 SEC) 1:00 PM CT ESPN2
Arkansas (15-7, 4-5 SEC) at LSU (12-9, 3-6 SEC) 2:30 PM CT SEC Network
Alabama (14-8, 5-4 SEC) at #23 Florida (15-7, 6-3 SEC) 3:00 PM CT ESPN
Ole Miss (11-11, 4-5 SEC) at #18 Tennessee (16-5, 6-3 SEC) 5:00 PM CT SEC Network
Georgia (13-8, 4-5 SEC) at Mississippi State (16-6, 4-5 SEC) 5:00 PM CT ESPNU
Vanderbilt (8-14, 2-7 SEC) at #11 Auburn (20-2, 8-1 SEC) 7:30 PM CT SEC Network
Check back on Monday for the SEC Starting Five as I’ll recap the weekend that was and preview the week ahead in SEC basketball. For updates throughout the weekend follow me on Twitter, @JulianCouncil.