Saturday brought our first real insight into the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s thinking when the panel released its top 16 teams in the field as it stood before the games on March 1. Kentucky and Florida were both No. 3 seeds, and both kept winning since.
The Wildcats won at Alabama and then routed Tennessee in a revenge game at home, signaling what looks like the end of an ugly slump. The Gators handled Texas A&M and then hammered Auburn — but they lost starting center John Egbunu to a torn ACL in the process.
South Carolina looks like a No. 6 (USA Today) or No. 7 seed (ESPN), depending on the bracketologist. Arkansas — fresh off a huge win over the Gamecocks — projects as a No. 10 (USA Today) or No. 11 (ESPN). USA Today still, incredibly, has Tennessee (barely) in the field, in an 11-seed play-in game, while ESPN has the Volunteers among the “first four out.”
UT lost 3 of 4, while Vanderbilt lost 2 of 3, including a putrid loss at Missouri that all but killed the Commodores’ NCAA Tournament aspirations just as they were gathering steam.
Here’s how all of the SEC’s NCAA Tournament hopefuls stack up entering the regular-season home stretch.
IN THE FIELD
FLORIDA (21-5, 11-2 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 18
Tucker says: The Gators are playing about as well as any team in the country, having now won their past 7 games — including a beatdown of Kentucky. But Wednesday’s news that Egbunu is out for the season is a significant blow. Tied atop the league standings with the Wildcats, Florida has difficult games left: South Carolina (Feb. 21), at Kentucky (Feb. 25), Arkansas (March 1) and at Vanderbilt (March 4). Can Mike White’s team overcome Edbunu’s injury and keep rolling?
KENTUCKY (21-5, 11-2 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 12
Tucker says: After losing 3 of 4, the Cats won their past three games. Pounding Tennessee by 25 was good for the confidence after the Vols won the first meeting in Knoxville. Kentucky now has 13 KenPom top 100 wins, but only 3 against the top 50. Although 3 of the final 5 regular-season games are on the road, only at Georgia on Saturday is a scary proposition. Florida at home on Feb. 25 might be the Wildcats’ last chance to impress the committee.
SOUTH CAROLINA (20-6, 10-3 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 46
Tucker says: Remember when the Gamecocks were alone atop the SEC standings? They lost 2 of 3 since then — to Alabama (in four overtimes) and Arkansas — both at home. Now Vanderbilt, Florida and Tennessee the next 3 games (those first 2 on the road) will test the toughness of Frank Martin’s team. Much like Kentucky’s recent slide, defense was at the root of South Carolina’s trouble. Once suffocating, the Gamecocks allowed an average of 80 points in the past 4 games.
ON THE BUBBLE
ARKANSAS (19-7, 8-5 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 87
Tucker says: The Razorbacks badly needed to wash off the stink of losing 3 of 4, including a total head-scratcher at lowly Missouri, and Wednesday night’s upset at South Carolina qualifies as a cleansing shower. That is Arkansas’ best win of the season and could come in handy on Selection Sunday. Mike Anderson’s team should be favored to win the next 3, then Florida (away) and Georgia offer shots at quality wins to close the regular season. The Hogs can’t rest easy just yet.
ALABAMA (15-10, 8-5 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 42
Tucker says: The Crimson Tide avoided disaster at Missouri on Wednesday night, escaping with a 3-point win. But they probably must sweep their remaining games — LSU, Georgia, at Texas A&M, Ole Miss, at Tennessee — or win 4 of 5 to truly be in the NCAA Tournament conversation. (Props to Mizzou, by the way, for losing 13 consecutive games and then nearly taking out tournament hopefuls Arkansas, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Alabama in the next 4. Like the Tide, the Aggies escaped with a 3-point win.)
GEORGIA (15-11, 6-7 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 17
Tucker says: The Bulldogs ran the gauntlet, playing the SEC’s top 3 teams in a row — at Kentucky, at South Carolina, Florida — and lost them all. Overtime in Lexington, a 2-point defeat in Columbia and a 12-point TKO against the Gators. Their NCAA Tournament hopes were all but dead, but then they won a thriller at Tennessee and held off Mississippi State at home to right the ship. Saturday brings another shot at Kentucky — at home this time. There are still chances for quality road wins at Alabama and Arkansas. Georgia won at Georgia Tech, Auburn, Ole Miss and Tennessee. Mark Fox’s team has 8 wins against the KenPom top 100 — but only 1 against the top 50.
OLE MISS (16-10, 7-6 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 37
Tucker says: The Rebels are long shots, but they’ve won 4 of 5 and have big opportunities coming. The pessimist would say their best win since mid-January is over Vanderbilt and their best non-conference win was Dec. 3 against an average Memphis team. That 3-point loss to Baylor in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge stings, but games at Arkansas on Saturday, at Alabama on March 1 and home against South Carolina on March 4 are chances to notch quality wins.
NOTE: Sorry, we refuse to include a Tennessee team that is now just 2 games above .500 overall and 6-7 in SEC play. Yes, the Vols played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country. No, they didn’t beat any of the top four teams they played outside the league.