It’s the second week of January and we’re already down to three SEC teams with any sense of security about their NCAA Tournament chances: Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina.
Then there’s Arkansas (falling) and Georgia (rising), which find themselves on the bubble. And that’s it. None of the league’s other nine teams is legitimately in the mix. ESPN’S Joe Lunardi updated his bracket projection on Thursday and has the Wildcats a 1 seed, Gators a 4 seed, Gamecocks a 7 and Razorbacks an 11, plus the Bulldogs among his “next four out.”
Lunardi has the ACC (10), Big Ten (8), Big 12 (6) and Big East (5) all getting more teams in than the SEC. That’s the bad news. The good? Four of the league’s top five teams are trending up. A look at what they’ve done so far – and must do still – to bolster their position come March:
IN THE FIELD
Kentucky (14-2, 4-0 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 11
Tucker says: The Wildcats needed a challenge and, with the help of a foulfest gumming up the works at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, finally got one in league play. They survived a road scare after winning their first three SEC games by an average of 30 points – and winning a dozen total games this season by at least 20. Nonconference wins against Michigan State and North Carolina look nice on the resume, and losses to UCLA and Louisville don’t hurt much. The next chance for a quality win in league play comes a week from Saturday against South Carolina.
Florida (13-3, 4-0 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 2
Tucker says: Mike White has the Gators looking good in Year 2 of the post-Billy Donovan era. Their only three losses have come against top-10 teams in the AP poll: No. 5 Gonzaga, No. 7 Duke and No. 9 Florida State. But Florida also has quality wins against Miami and Seton Hall, plus decent road victories at Arkansas and Alabama. The next two games – Georgia at home, South Carolina on the road – are against top-50 teams in the RPI and KenPom rankings. Circle the Feb. 4 showdown against Kentucky in Gainesville on your calendar. If anyone in this league can dethrone the Cats, it’s these guys.
South Carolina (13-3, 3-0 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 51
Tucker says: The Gamecocks have no bad losses, a pair of quality nonconference wins (Michigan and Syracuse) and now two road victories (at Georgia and Tennessee) as part of a perfect league start. Frank Martin’s team looks legit, but next week brings two huge opportunities: home against Florida and at Kentucky. Win either of those and South Carolina, just outside the Top 25 in both major polls, will start getting a lot more love.
ON THE BUBBLE
Georgia (11-5, 3-1 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 16
Tucker says: The Bulldogs jumped Arkansas in status since last week, thanks to a win Tuesday night at Ole Miss and because the Razorbacks are fading fast. Georgia has no bad losses, but the problem is it also has zero wins that jump off the page. The game Saturday at Florida presents a chance to change that. No matter the result there, though, the most important stretch of the season comes Jan. 28 to Feb. 7: Texas, at Kentucky, at South Carolina, Florida. An NCAA Tournament bid will be won or lost in those 11 days.
Arkansas (12-4, 1-3 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 45
Tucker says: The Hogs went 11-1 in nonconference play, but now they’ve lost 3 of 4 to start the league schedule. Two of those losses – Kentucky and Florida – are perfectly respectable, but dropping the last one at home against Mississippi State was ugly. Making matters worse, one of Arkansas’ two best wins gets worse every day because Texas now has lost 4 of 5 to drop below .500. Hanging your hat on a pretty good victory against Houston is not a great look to the committee, but the next opportunity for a real resume-booster isn’t until Jan. 28 at Oklahoma State in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.
THE NEXT FOUR
Ole Miss (10-6, 1-3) – RPI 51, KenPom 95, SOS 15
Vanderbilt (8-8, 2-2) – RPI 60, KenPom 66, SOS 9
Tennessee (8-8, 1-3) – RPI 67, KenPom 67, SOS 7
Alabama (9-6, 2-1) – RPI 76, KenPom 76, SOS 56