Tuesday night’s surprising loss at Tennessee knocked Kentucky off the top line in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s updated NCAA Tournament projection and made Saturday’s showdown with second-ranked Kansas (also limping in off a loss) a must-win for the Wildcats if they want to ultimately earn a No. 1 seed in March.
Here’s the problem for Kentucky: It has just three RPI top-50 wins – No. 9 North Carolina, No. 16 South Carolina, No. 27 Arkansas – and not many opportunities left in the floundering SEC. That early Michigan State victory keeps fading in significance, as the Spartans already have nine losses, and the Cats lost to their other two RPI top-25 opponents, UCLA and Louisville.
Maybe John Calipari’s team could lose to the Jayhawks and then run the table through the SEC Tournament to still earn consideration for a top seed, but given the league’s standing as only the fifth- or sixth-best basketball conference in the country, that might not mean much on Selection Sunday.
Lunardi has Kentucky a No. 2 seed in his latest bracket, joined in the field by No. 5 seed Florida, No. 7 seed South Carolina and (back in the party) No. 9 seed Arkansas. He has backsliding Georgia among the first four out. Here’s how we see those five SEC hopefuls (plus two more):
IN THE FIELD
KENTUCKY (17-3, 7-1 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 15
Tucker says: Even as the Wildcats kept winning, coach John Calipari saw his team “slipping, slipping, slipping” into bad habits, away from sharing and toward hero ball over the last two weeks. It finally caught up to them in Knoxville, as a barely .500 Tennessee team ended Kentucky’s bid for another perfect SEC run. But Saturday’s huge home game against Kansas provides an immediate chance at redemption – and the Cats’ last real shot at a major resume booster.
FLORIDA (15-5, 6-2 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 5
Tucker says: No shame in losing a close one at 23rd-ranked South Carolina, but following that up with a home loss to sub-.500 Vanderbilt? That could sting on Selection Sunday. Luckily, LSU was just what the doctor ordered, and the Gators handed the Tigers their most lopsided league loss ever. Saturday’s SEC-Big 12 opponent doesn’t offer the resume-boosting power it figured to in the preseason, as Oklahoma has a losing record, but it’s still one Mike White’s team needs to win. The Feb. 4 home game against Kentucky remains the best shot at a win that can dramatically improve seeding.
SOUTH CAROLINA (16-4, 6-1 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 26
Tucker says: There was no post-Kentucky hangover, as the Gamecocks returned home and hammered Auburn. Sadly, they were not included in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge, so Saturday brings a miserable matchup with Missouri. After that? Abysmal LSU. Frank Martin’s team won’t play a significant resume-booster until Feb. 15 against Arkansas – unless Alabama (Feb. 7) keeps winning. The bright side is South Carolina should steamroll through the next couple of weeks, and if the Wildcats lose again any time soon, Martin and Co. will sit atop the SEC standings.
ON THE BUBBLE
ARKANSAS (16-4, 5-3 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 57
Tucker says: After losing 3 of 4 league games to fall off the bubble, the Razorbacks have quietly won four straight to get right back on it. Home wins over Missouri and LSU don’t move the needle, but road victories at Texas A&M and Vanderbilt are worth something. Saturday’s SEC-Big 12 Challenge game at Oklahoma State is a potential resume-builder. While the Cowboys lost their first six conference games, they’ve righted the ship with consecutive top-50 wins and climbed to 27th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. The Hogs need this one.
ALABAMA (12-7, 5-2 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 68
Tucker says: That 20-point loss at rival Auburn last weekend was a big blow, but the Tide responded with a 20-point win at Georgia. Call it a push? Avery Johnson’s team needs better than break-even weeks, though, to get serious NCAA Tournament consideration. Even as Alabama sits just a game back of league frontrunners Kentucky and South Carolina in the loss column, it has zero RPI top-50 wins. There’s no SEC-Big 12 opportunity Saturday, but a trip to Arkansas next week and consecutive games against the Wildcats and Gamecocks (Feb.7 and 11) provide chances for marquee wins.
TENNESSEE (11-9, 4-4 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 4
Tucker says: The Volunteers were nowhere near this list until they stunned Kentucky in Knoxville on Tuesday night, notching the best win by any team in the league so far. And it was not a fluke. Even John Calipari admitted UT was the better team from start to finish. This same team also took Oregon to overtime, lost by two at North Carolina and kept it close against Wisconsin and Gonzaga. There are no bad losses on the Vols’ resume, so now they just need to pile up a lot more wins. A home win over Kansas State in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge would make this a major statement week for Rick Barnes’ team.
GEORGIA (12-8, 4-4 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 28
Tucker says: The second we started believing in the Bulldogs, they dropped consecutive games – at Texas A&M (in a controversial, gut-wrenching ending) and home against Alabama (in humiliating fashion, by 20 points). Oh, and here comes the gauntlet: Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee all in a row. Three of those are on the road and four are against RPI top-50 teams. When Georgia had won 3 of 4 league games and took the Gators to overtime, that stretch looked like a lot of opportunities for big wins. Now it looks more like a death march.