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.
The SEC has suffered a number of embarrassing losses during non-conference play. (all RPI references using TeamRankings.com) 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?