Welcome to the party, Tennessee. The Volunteers had themselves one heck of a week and suddenly, improbably, have real hope of making the NCAA Tournament. They’re among the “first four out” in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest projection, while 4 other SEC teams are in the field (for now).
Lunardi has Kentucky a No. 2 seed, Florida a No. 5, South Carolina a No. 6 and Arkansas a No. 9. He included Georgia among his “next four out,” but we’re booting the Bulldogs from our NCAA discussion for now. (We’ve added a surprise squad to the conversation.) There simply aren’t enough actual wins for Mark Fox’s team.
Georgia took Florida and Kentucky to overtime on the road and lost by a point at Texas A&M, where the Bulldogs caught a bad break late. But Georgia doesn’t have anything in the win column worthy of an invitation to the Big Dance.
If you need a second opinion, CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm doesn’t have the Bulldogs or Tennessee on his bubble now. He has Kentucky as a No. 3 seed, South Carolina a No. 6, Florida a No. 7 and Arkansas a No. 9.
Here’s how we see the SEC hopefuls heading into this weekend.
IN THE FIELD
KENTUCKY (18-4, 8-1 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 10
Tucker says: Can you imagine if Malik Monk didn’t hit that long, tying jumper with under 10 seconds to play in regulation against Georgia on Tuesday night? An overtime escape prevented the Wildcats’ first 3-game losing streak under John Calipari, but that might’ve been a temporary plug in the leak. An upset loss to Tennessee and missed opportunity against Kansas last week all but squashed any hope of a No. 1 seed, and now here comes a road trip to Florida on Saturday. It’s among the last chances for Kentucky to add a high-level win to its resume, and it might be without starting point guard De’Aaron Fox (illness) for a second consecutive game. This is a dangerous time for the Cats.
FLORIDA (16-5, 6-2 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 11
Tucker says: The Gators shook off their mini-slump, following consecutive losses with consecutive blowout victories. Oklahoma is a shell of last season’s Buddy Hield-led team, but a 32-point rout of the Sooners (on the road) in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge still was impressive. Now for the big one. Well, first a Thursday night warm-up against miserable Missouri, but then the big one: Kentucky comes to town, along with ESPN’s College GameDay crew, on Saturday. That’s a major opportunity for both sides, and Florida’s chances increase dramatically if the Wildcats don’t have Fox.
SOUTH CAROLINA (18-4, 8-1 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 45
Tucker says: Quietly, Frank Martin’s team keeps piling up wins. Quietly, in part, because the past 3 have come against Auburn, Missouri and LSU, the bottom teams in the conference with 4 SEC wins among them. The Gamecocks have 3 RPI top-50 wins — No. 9 Florida, at No. 34 Tennessee, at No. 50 Georgia — plus solid nonconference victories over Michigan and Syracuse. But their last chance to make a big splash is likely Feb. 21 at Florida. Can we talk about what a crime it is that South Carolina was left out of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge?
ARKANSAS (17-5, 6-3 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 56
Tucker says: Getting slammed by Oklahoma State (99-71) in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge was not good, but the Razorbacks took it out on poor Alabama (87-68) on Wednesday night. They’ve won 5-of-6 and should be solidly in the NCAA Tournament field. Mike Anderson’s team can’t afford a stumble in its next 3 games (at Missouri, Vanderbilt, at LSU). Feb. 15 at South Carolina and March 1 at Florida are the big resume-boosters still out there for Arkansas.
ON THE BUBBLE
TENNESSEE (13-9, 5-4 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 4
Tucker says: Rick Barnes suddenly has the hottest team in the SEC. The Volunteers won 4 straight and 5-of-6, including an upset of then-No. 4 Kentucky that was followed by an upset of Kansas State in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. That brutal early-season schedule — Tennessee lost competitive games against Gonzaga, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Oregon — appears to have prepared the Vols for a strong finish. KenPom projects a 19-12 overall and 11-7 conference record, which would keep them in the NCAA Tournament conversation.
VANDERBILT (11-11, 4-5 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 3
Tucker says: This is a bit of a stretch, but the Commodores are on a roll. They’ve won 3-of-4, including at Florida and Texas A&M, plus an SEC-Big 12 Challenge upset of Iowa State. If not for a 1-point loss to Arkansas, Vandy would have a hot streak to rival Tennessee’s now. Lots of work to be done, but Bryce Drew’s team seems to have turned a corner. Now comes the hard part: road games at Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky remain, along with home games against SEC contenders South Carolina and Florida.