The beginning of February in college basketball has made part of the bubble less blurry, for now, but outside of the top three teams, the quest for a fourth No. 1 seed hasn’t seemed this murky in a long time. Might that team come from the SEC? Could it be a team we didn’t previously consider heading into the weekend? Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. On Friday I wrote that I felt that Auburn had a pretty good chance at sneaking onto the one line come Selection Sunday. The Tigers have won 19 of their last 20 and sit two games clear of Tennessee atop the SEC standings at 9-1. According to KenPom.com, the Tigers are favored in the rest of their remaining regular-season games yet are projected to finish of 27-4 overall and 15-3 in the SEC. That projection would give the Tigers the SEC regular-season crown and put them squarely into the conversation for a one seed. That would’ve already been the case but the losses this weekend by Duke and Kansas has accelerated the conversation. The Blue Devils lost to a St. John’s team that was coming off of an 11 game losing streak. The Red Storm now have as many wins (11) out of conference as they have losses in the Big East. The Blue Devils don’t have a loss outside of the RPI Top 100, but the losses to Boston College and St. John’s won’t go over favorably when considering the other teams vying for a top seed. Kansas has now lost three times at home and doesn’t appear to be the clear favorite in the Big 12. I’m still picking Kansas to win the league because I’m under the assumption that it’s not possible for another team to win that league unless they sweep the season series with the Jayhawks, and that’s not happening. Either way, KU is going to take a few more knocks on their resume before the month is over.
2. One team, I didn’t consider being a part of the one seed conversation was Tennessee. The Volunteers have had a remarkable season up to this point. At 17-5 overall and alone in second place at 7-3 in the SEC, Rick Barnes has his team set up for a top 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, or BPI, of the teams behind Virginia, Villanova, and Purdue, who appear to be locks for a number one seed, Tennessee has the highest percentage (24%) to earn the fourth number one seed.
Surprise losses by Duke and Kansas yesterday opened up the race for the fourth No. 1 seed (with Villanova, Virginia and Purdue near-locks). Behind them, chance to earn a No. 1 seed, per BPI:
Michigan State: 11%
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) February 4, 2018
KenPom projects the Vols to finish with a 23-7 overall record and 13-5 conference record. That would be behind the projected finish for Auburn and hard to imagine a better resume than the Tigers unless the Volunteers were able to cap it off with an SEC tournament title, then maybe that could elevate them over Auburn. Although, these are two different metrics that we’re looking at. Currently, Joe Lunardi in his latest Bracketology has Xavier as the fourth number one seed and playing in Nashville. The focus for Tennessee should be surviving this week’s road tests at Kentucky and Alabama, then hoping to position themselves to a first and second round date at Bridgestone Arena. Anything above that is icing.
3. Heading into the weekend, Lunardi had seven SEC teams in his projected NCAA Tournament field with Missouri and Georgia the first two teams outside of the field. Following a 69-60 win at home on Saturday over then-No.24 Kentucky, along with the midweek win at Alabama, the Tigers have played their way into the field as a 10 seed. Mizzou’s two wins were good enough to have them solidly into the field avoiding a First Four trip to Dayton. For Georgia, the Bulldogs 72-57 loss at Mississippi State has dropped them outside of consideration, according to Lunardi. KenPom favors UGa in only one of their last eight games this season. After Wednesday night’s contest at Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs will have a three-game stretch with a home date against Auburn, a trip to Florida and back home versus Tennessee, that will decide whether their bubble has burst.
4. South Carolina did themselves no favors in losing 83-60 at Texas A&M on Saturday. A close loss would’ve been acceptable, but the Gamecocks have now lost three in a row after clinching marquee wins against Kentucky and Florida, along with playing Tennessee and Texas Tech close at home. USC has fallen out of favor with Lunardi for the time being as they have matchups against Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida and Auburn in the next two weeks to look forward to. The Bulldogs from Starkville may have reason to panic. Like Georgia and South Carolina, Mississippi State isn’t currently ‘up for consideration’ in the latest Bracketology despite riding a three-game winning streak, with wins coming against bubble teams in Missouri, South Carolina and Georgia. Of the top 9 teams in the SEC standings, Mississippi State is the only team not in the projected field. The 17-5 overall record and 5-5 league record are where Ben Howland and his team want to be and the RPI of 57 isn’t that far off. The problem lies in the overall strength of schedule at 107 and, even more so, in the non-conference SOS of 345 when looking at KenPom. History has shown us that teams with a poor non-conference SOS, regardless of conference affiliation, don’t get the benefit of the doubt come Selection Sunday. Just ask South Carolina, who back in 2016 went 25-9 record and finished tied for third in the SEC but were still left out because of a 245th ranked non-conference SOS. Mississippi State better do a damn good job to position itself for the SEC Tournament because they’re going to need to win that sucker if they want to dance.
5. Looking forward to the week:
- We’re going to find out just how good Tennessee is this week. Like I stated above, the Vols have had an incredible season under Barnes in Year 3 and look poised to be a top 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If they’re going to fulfill their BPI destiny as a one seed then winning this week at Kentucky and Alabama is assuredly a prerequisite. I’m not ready to buy into UT as a one seed because I think there are too many teams above them, but a 2-0 week will have me buying into their staying power once the tournament starts.
- Arkansas need to be wary about not slipping too close to the bubble. Two road losses to A&M and LSU a week ago has the Razorbacks position a little less secure than when they were in the midst of a three-game winning streak. South Carolina will be a desperate team looking to get back into the bubble conversation.
- Mississippi State needs to take full advantage of Tuesday night’s visit from Alabama. The Crimson Tide are coming off of a 68-50 education of Florida and are more than capable of doing the same in Starkville. A home win won’t help their RPI as much as adding to the dearth of road wins would but it will add a key top 50 win.
- Speaking of bubble teams who need to beware, Missouri can ill-afford to go to Oxford on Tuesday night and lose to an Ole Miss team that lost by 33 at Tennessee and has lost five of their last six. That’s the type of loss that can derail a resume.
- After two double-digit victories last week, Texas A&M appears to be headed into the direction we thought they’d be in all season until suspensions and injuries got in the way. A win at Auburn would be the truest mark that the Aggies are hitting their stride in the stretch run to March.
#15 Tennessee (17-5, 7-3 SEC) at #24 Kentucky (17-6, 6-4) 6:00 PM CT ESPN
South Carolina (13-10, 4-6 SEC) at Arkansas (15-8, 4-6 SEC) 6:00 PM CT ESPN2
Alabama (15-8, 6-4 SEC) at Mississippi State (17-6, 5-5 SEC) 6:00 PM CT SEC Network
Missouri (15-8, 5-5 SEC) at Ole Miss (11-12, 4-6 SEC) 8:00 PM CT SEC Network
LSU (13-9, 4-6 SEC) at Florida (15-8, 6-4 SEC) 5:30 PM CT SEC Network
Georgia (13-9, 4-6 SEC) at Vanderbilt (8-15, 2-8 SEC) 7:30 PM CT SEC Network
Texas A&M (15-8, 4-6 SEC) at #8 Auburn (21-2, 9-1 SEC) 8:00 PM CT ESPN2
Check back Friday for the SEC Starting Five as I look back on the week that was and ahead to the weekend slate of games. For updates throughout the week, follow me on Twitter, @JulianCouncil.