Did Black Saturday Sink the SEC’s NCAA Tournament Chances?Posted by Christian D'Andrea on March 5th, 2013
There’s no way around it – the SEC is having one of its worst basketball seasons in recent history. If it holds up, the conference might get lapped by the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, and Mountain West Conferences in 2013. Only Florida has survived as a top 25 staple as talented but unproven teams like Kentucky and Missouri fell from the national rankings as the season wore on. The Wildcats have struggled to replace the game-altering defense and efficient offense of Nerlens Noel while Frank Haith’s Tigers have failed to gel as a unit despite boasting one of the country’s most talented rosters. Behind them, Ole Miss rose to the national consciousness thanks to Marshall Henderson and a 17-2 opening record. Then, they fell back to earth nearly as quickly while the cocksure guard struggled to make more than 35 percent of his shots in deflating losses. Even Alabama, with an 11-5 conference record and a top 50 RPI, has struggled to prove that their solid record passes the smell test in 2013.
Then, on March 2, with the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee intently watching, all four teams lost. It started when Alabama, who needed a big win against Florida just to make it to the Tournament bubble, fell by a dozen points on the road. Then Tennessee, who was riding high after its own Gator upset, lost against a better-than-advertised Georgia team that was playing angry after an upset loss to Vanderbilt. Kentucky followed that up by allowing Arkansas to a 26-shot advantage in a 13-point defeat in Fayetteville. Then, most inexplicably of all, Ole Miss lost its Egg Bowl showdown with 7-20 Mississippi State, snapping the Bulldogs’ 13-game losing streak and completing the Rebels’ drop from potential NCAA Tournament #4-seed to NIT participant. There’s no sugar-coating how destructive this loss was – the Bulldogs had lost their previous two games by a combined 71 points. Marshall Henderson’s 3-of-18 performance from three-point range painted him less as a Chris Lofton-style savior and more as a late-era Antoine Walker chucker.
That one catastrophic day pounded nails into the coffins of the conference’s mid-level teams and may have resigned the SEC to the ignoble honor of sending only two teams to the NCAA Tournament. Currently, only Florida and Mizzou reside inside the top 50 of the RPI. All four of the conference’s would-be Cinderellas are stuck between #50 and #60 – otherwise known as NIT territory. In one day, Kentucky and Tennessee slid to the wrong side of the bubble, Ole Miss pushed itself off the bubble entirely, and Alabama cut off what may have been their last chance to approach the serious side of the Selection Committee’s conversations.
The bracket experts agree. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Tennessee as the last team in the NCAA Tournament and Ole Miss, Alabama, and Kentucky in his “Last Four Out” group. SBNation‘s Chris Dobbertean sees it the same way, though Alabama and Ole Miss lie further from a bid than in Lunardi’s simulation. RTC’s own resident bracketologist Daniel Evans has the Vols stuck in a play-in game while their three compatriots prepare for NIT matchups.
Not all hope is lost. The SEC Tournament will still give each of these teams a chance to rise to the top. However, barring a run to the conference title, it may all be for naught. With the conference RPI sinking, quality wins will be tough to come by in a bracket that will be littered with teams outside of the top 100. An appearance in the conference title game after wins over teams like Vanderbilt and Georgia won’t be enough to displace teams like Minnesota, Colorado, or even Middle Tennessee State in the NCAA’s bracket.
If the SEC rolls to the Big Dance with only two teams in tow, we’ll know the precise date that the southern focus switched back to football and spring practices. March 2, 2013 – the day that SEC basketball became a mid-major affair for one forgettable season.