It’s tough to find fault with the NCAA tournament committee’s decision to include only three SEC programs (Texas A&M, Kentucky, Vanderbilt) in this year’s 68-team field.
Yes, South Carolina (11-7), LSU (11-7), Ole Miss (10-8) and UGA (10-8) all posted winning records in league play; but as listed below, the other numbers and metrics didn’t fully support the Gamecocks, Tigers, Rebels or Bulldogs for one of the tourney’s 36 at-large slots.
(As an 11-seed in the South Region, Vandy survived this vetting process — barely — by drawing Wichita State in a First Four play-in game.)
South Carolina: 56th nationally
Ole Miss: 96
SKINNY: Of the SEC’s nine programs with .500 or better records in conference play, only Kentucky (No. 12) and Texas A&M (No. 18) made the top 50 in this category. In fact, Florida (19-14) currently stands as the SEC’s third-best RPI asset.
Also, for what it’s worth, the RPI’s top 29 teams all reached the NCAA tournament.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
UGA: 23rd nationally
South Carolina: 157
Ole Miss: 169
SKINNY: Ole Miss (20-12 overall) gets a free pass here on its low SOS ranking for two reasons:
a) The Rebels only got a chance to play the SEC’s three tourney teams — Kentucky, Vandy, Texas A&M — once apiece during conference play (out-of-their-control quirk).
b) Ole Miss was the only SEC program in this four-team survey to schedule three consecutive road games during the non-conference action.
ROAD/NEUTRAL GAMES ONLY
UGA: 55th nationally
South Carolina: 60
Ole Miss: 115
SKINNY: It’s equal parts baffling and disappointing that, among SEC teams, only Kentucky (No. 23) cracked the top 30 in this rock-solid category.
On the baffling end … the SEC always has prime representation in all of the top holiday tournaments; and the Big 12-SEC Challenge (highlighted by Oklahoma @ LSU and Kentucky @ Kansas — amazing game) was a huge success in its first year.
Plus, with its ESPN and SEC Network deals, the conference should be plenty motivated to schedule quality or TV-friendly opponents during the November and December months.
Conversely, perhaps the SEC Network setup works against the league, if the schools are reluctant to schedule road or neutral games that would potentially go to non-ESPN entities, like the CBS and NBC sports networks.
On the disappointing end … SEC officials should use this three-bid campaign as a wake-up call for the future. Maybe it’s time to drop the airs of scheduling superiority and adopt the time-tested strategy of playing anyone, anywhere and anytime during November and December.
NON-CONFERENCE STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
UGA: 3rd nationally
South Carolina: 298
Ole Miss: 304
SKINNY: You’d think this crucial metric would be an excellent ally for bubble squads, but none of the nation’s top eight teams in this category (Northern Arizona, Long Beach State, UGA, Florida, San Diego State, Nicholls State, Illinois State, UC Santa Barbara) qualified for the NCAA tournament.
In other words, sadly, it was irrelevant that UGA (19-13 overall) loaded up with respectable opponents like Baylor (Sweet 16 consideration for the upcoming tourney), Chattanooga (tourney invite), Seton Hall (Big East tourney champs), Oakland (took Michigan State to overtime in December), Kansas State (knocked off Oklahoma), Georgia Tech (NIT bound) and Clemson (NIT bound).
The same held true for Florida (19-14 overall), which had a series of back-to-backs against St. Joseph’s and Purdue in November and Miami and Michigan State in December. The Gators also crushed West Virginia (ranked No. 9 nationally at the time) in January.
Regarding LSU (19-14 overall) … just think of how low the Tigers’ NCSOS ranking would have been if they didn’t land that made-for-TV showdown with Oklahoma — otherwise known as Ben Simmons vs. Buddy Hield (above).
Oh, and if LSU doesn’t squander a late 12-point lead against Oklahoma, I’m willing to bet the Tigers would have replaced Tulsa as one of the First Four play-in teams.
FINAL 12 GAMES
South Carolina: 6-6
Ole Miss: 7-5
SKINNY: If UGA had pulled off the Kentucky upset on Saturday (SEC semifinals), it might have been enough for the Bulldogs to clinch a tourney berth. But alas, they’ll have to settle for an NIT bid (first-round opponent: Belmont) … while carrying the optimistic tag of “Next Year’s Breakout Team.”
South Carolina (24-8 overall) seemed like a tourney lock in early January, after rolling to a 15-0 start and securing a top 25 ranking.
But a 3-6 finishing kick, coupled with a middling non-conference slate overall, ultimately hindered the Gamecocks’ chances of reaching their first Big Dance on coach Frank Martin’s watch.
The same goes for LSU, which had a 3-5 finish to the season. Of the Tigers’ five year-ending defeats, four had a double-digit point spread (ouch) — highlighted by the inexplicable 71-38 loss to Texas A&M in the SEC tournament (semifinal round).
If you had watched that game, cover to cover, you would have sworn the LSU players had just met for the first time … roughly three minutes before tip-off.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.