The SEC Could Be On the Outside Looking In On Selection Sunday

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 31st, 2012

Over the summer, Kentucky coach John Calipari quipped that the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri made the SEC stronger than ever, adding that the league would get seven teams into the NCAA Tournament this season. Then again, Calipari probably didn’t anticipate his Wildcats would have four losses in non-conference play. He also probably never imagined the number of embarrassing losses for the conference would far exceed the quality wins within the league. And he likely never dreamed that the conference as a whole would be arguably weaker than the Mountain West, Pac-12, Atlantic 10, and Missouri Valley. Forget seven teams making the NCAA Tournament, the SEC will be lucky to get four in the Big Dance after a sub-par non-conference slate.

John Calipari was wrong, but just how wrong was he?

John Calipari was wrong about the SEC, but just how wrong was he?

The SEC has suffered a number of embarrassing losses during non-conference play. (all RPI references using Vanderbilt lost to Marist (RPI #236). Winthrop (RPI #149) beat Auburn. Elon (#RPI 84) defeated South Carolina. Youngstown State (RPI #195) beat Georgia. Alabama dropped one to Mercer (RPI #150). Mississippi State lost to Troy (RPI #309). Then the Bulldogs turned around and lost to Alabama A&M (RPI #280). Unfortunately, the damage is done. The perception is that the SEC is weak. There’s nothing any team can do about that now. And that viewpoint will come back to haunt the league on Selection Sunday. Even if a couple of teams make a run in conference play, they will do it against SEC teams (see: perception of SEC, three sentences prior). The SEC needed quality wins, and well, it missed its chance.

The bottom of the league isn’t solely at fault. Even the top of the conference failed expectations, albeit unfair and outlandish ones. Kentucky was supposed to win the league this year. Sure, the Cats were reloading after sending six players to the NBA, but that’s life with Calipari at the helm. Outlandish expectations are certainly a testament to the outstanding work he’s done since arriving in Lexington.  In spite of the departures, Kentucky is still the most talented team in the SEC, yet Cal’s Wildcats are currently fifth in the SEC RPI standings. UK lost to Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor, and Louisville. All good or great teams, no doubt, but that leaves the Big Blue with a loss against four of the five quality teams (exception: Maryland, RPI #59) it faced. Kentucky will surely get into the NCAA Tournament, but its seeding becomes a major question mark. And if the SEC’s flagship program’s future is in doubt, what does that mean for the rest of the conference?

The RPI is outdated and archaic, primed for a standards review by the NCAA, but like the BCS poll in football, this is the system with which we have to work. The NCAA selection committee will use the data for both selections and seeding in March, and the SEC isn’t faring too well after an embarrassing November and December. Kentucky hasn’t done itself any favors, but neither has much of the rest of the league:

SEC RPI standings this season as of 12.31.12.

SEC RPI standings this season as of 12.31.12.

The top half of the conference doesn’t look all that different than last year’s RPI standings at this same time, but the bottom of the conference will have a negative effect on the SEC come Selection Sunday. This is a look at the SEC on December 31, 2011:

SEC RPI standings last season as of 12.31.11.

SEC RPI standings last season as of 12.31.11.

At this point last year, Tennessee was the only sub-200 SEC school, and the Vols made a significant run through the league in conference play after Jarnell Stokes came on board. This season, the Southeastern Conference has four sub-200 schools. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t see Mississippi State, Auburn, Georgia, or South Carolina winning 10 games in league play this year. Therein lies the problem. Is there time at this point for SEC teams to turn it around?  In 2011, Alabama got caught on the outside looking in, despite a 12-4 conference mark. The Crimson Tide, however, lost to Saint Mary’s (RPI #54), Providence (RPI #158), Seton Hall (RPI #104), and Iowa (RPI #189) in non-conference play. There simply weren’t enough quality wins within league play to reverse Alabama’s early misfortunes. A similar fate struck Mississippi State last season. After losing just twice before league play (Akron – RPI #70 and Baylor – RPI #8), the Bulldogs fell apart within the conference losing six of its last eight (including losses to Auburn – RPI #147 and twice to Georgia – RPI #104). Which SEC teams will be left out this year?

We can be certain that Calipari was wrong about seven teams making their way to the Big Dance in March, but just how wrong was he? For teams on the bubble, quality wins could be hard to come by. For teams like Florida, Missouri, and Kentucky, seeding could be severely impacted. At this point, teams in the SEC could be fighting an uphill battle on Selection Sunday.

Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops.

Brian Joyce (333 Posts)

Brian Joyce is an advanced metrics enthusiast, college hoops junkie, and writer for the SEC basketball microsite for Rush the Court.

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