Keep Hope Alive: The Importance of the SEC/Big 12 ChallengePosted by Brian Joyce on January 27th, 2017
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee on Tuesday announced that it would provide an in-season preview of the bracket’s top 16 seeds. SEC fans outside of Lexington should not get overly excited. Kentucky will most certainly hear its name called during the first-ever event, but it is unlikely any other SEC team will. In fact, Selection Sunday — wherein, of course, 68 names are called — may not be all that much better. The snark targeted at SEC basketball is at an all-time high with Sports Illustrated predicting no more than three conference teams in the Big Dance (doubling down on that prediction again with Seth Davis’ column), the bracketology at CBS showing Kentucky little respect as a #3 seed, and even the most kind bracketologist projecting a maximum of four SEC teams partaking in March Madness. National confidence in the league is painfully low, and perhaps that makes sense considering the resurgence that has been predicted for years has not come with the requisite corresponding postseason success (aside from one program).
The consensus among bracketologists is that three SEC teams are safely into the field as of today – Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida. While there is some debate about how deserving Kentucky is of a #1 seed, there is no scenario that slots the Wildcats any lower than the #3 seed line. A win on Saturday against Kansas would only strengthen Kentucky’s case for a top seed. South Carolina ranks #17 in the RPI and holds wins over Michigan, Syracuse and Florida. The Gators could really use a signature win beyond those three, but they have an RPI of #11 and are the nation’s 13th-best team, according to KenPom. Beyond the top three, the question becomes which SEC teams, if any, have a reasonable chance of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Correspondingly, how important are Saturday’s match-ups in the Big 12/SEC Challenge in order to keep their hopes alive?
Arkansas might be the fourth SEC team most deserving of a bid. The Hogs are 16-4 with victories over UT Arlington, Houston and Texas, but they have relatively few remaining opportunities to pick up quality wins. Their best chances will come when they travel to South Carolina and Florida, a pair of venues where Arkansas has won only once in the Mike Anderson era (a 2015 win in Columbia). Arkansas has decent profile numbers — 30th in the RPI, 45th in KenPom, and the 52nd-best strength of schedule. But the best thing the Razorbacks can do is just keep winning — they’re currently riding a four-game winning streak, and a road win at Oklahoma State Saturday would be a nice way to keep the momentum going.
Tennessee is coming off of a signature home win over Kentucky, and following that up with a victory over a solid Kansas State team could be just what Rick Barnes’ Volunteers need to enter the postseason discussion. The Vols have played teams like Wisconsin, Oregon, North Carolina and Gonzaga tough in close defeats, but they were not able to pull through for another excellent victory. Despite a mediocre 11-9 overall record, a win over the Wildcats and a strong second half run in SEC play could give Tennessee a shot. Its top-five strength of schedule could keep Barnes’ team in the discussion if it can add a few more notches to the win column.
Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida should hear their names called on Selection Sunday. After that, it’s anybody’s guess on which SEC teams will play on. If Arkansas or Tennessee want to make it to the Big Dance, a pair of wins on Saturday would be a great place to start. For Georgia, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and the others, a win against their well-regarded Big 12 opponents might be the last chance to prevent their bubbles from already bursting.