Move over, Kentucky. Florida is the new darling of SEC basketball — for now. In USA Today’s latest projection of the 2017 NCAA Tournament bracket, the Gators are described as a “Final Four dark horse.” And fresh off a blowout win over the Wildcats, they’re threatening to land a better seed than UK.
USA Today’s latest update has Kentucky a No. 3 seed, Florida a No. 4, South Carolina a No. 7 and Tennessee a No. 10. Vanderbilt is among the first four out, while (not surprisingly) Arkansas vanished from the conversation altogether.
There’s still not much love for Alabama, even after a huge road win Tuesday, but there certainly will be if the Crimson Tide can deliver another upset Saturday against John Calipari and his confounding Cats.
Here’s how we see the SEC’s handful of NCAA Tournament hopefuls heading into the weekend.
IN THE FIELD
KENTUCKY (19-5, 9-2 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 13
Tucker says: The Wildcats’ 22-point beating at Florida, their third loss in four games, sent Big Blue Nation into full-blown panic mode and necessitated a “reboot” from coach John Calipari. Then UK let a 25-point lead shrivel to a 7-point win over awful LSU on Tuesday night and no one feels much better, despite Calipari saying he now feels the Cats are “on the right path.” We’ll see Saturday at Alabama and 3 days later when Kentucky gets its first revenge opportunity at home against Tennessee.
FLORIDA (19-5, 9-2 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 16
Tucker says: The Gators are the SEC’s hottest team after a 5-game winning streak (all by at least a dozen points), including routs of Oklahoma and Kentucky. But the defining stretch of the season — in terms of both the SEC title race and NCAA seeding — comes Feb. 21 and 25 against South Carolina and at UK. Win both of those and Mike White’s team could be pushing for a 2 or 3 seed. Florida is one of just 10 teams in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Gonzaga, Virginia, West Virginia, Villanova, Kentucky, Purdue, Florida State, SMU and Wichita State are the others.
SOUTH CAROLINA (19-5, 9-2 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 47
Tucker says: Tuesday night’s four-overtime loss at home to Alabama stung, but Frank Martin has to be happy about how the Gamecocks fought. They trailed by 17 in the first half and missed their final 17 shots before intermission. Then Sindarius Thornwell (44 points, 21 rebounds) dragged South Carolina back into it. So no real harm done. But now 3 of the next 4 games are on the road — at Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Florida — with a home date with Arkansas sprinkled in there. There are several potential stumbling blocks.
ON THE BUBBLE
TENNESSEE (14-10, 6-5 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 4
Tucker says: A close loss at Mississippi State cooled the Volunteers’ hot streak, but they bounced back at home against Ole Miss on Tuesday and have now won 5 of 6. Imagine if Rick Barnes and his team could’ve pulled off a victory in that 4-point overtime loss to Oregon or 2-point defeat at North Carolina early this season. They’d be sitting pretty for an NCAA Tournament invitation. As it stands, they must keep winning. And games at Kentucky (Feb. 14) and at South Carolina (Feb. 25) are big opportunities to earn their way into the field.
ARKANSAS (17-7, 6-5 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 76
Tucker says: The Razorbacks played their way out of nearly every NCAA Tournament projection with 3 losses in the past 4 games, including ugly ones at Missouri and at home against sub-.500 Vanderbilt. Mike Anderson’s team started 11-1 against weak non-conference opponents but looked OK after a 5-3 league start. Now Arkansas probably needs to win at South Carolina (Feb. 15) or at Florida (March 1) to earn back respect with the selection committee.
ALABAMA (14-9, 7-4 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 44
Tucker says: Just when the Crimson Tide looked on the verge of collapse — consecutive losses to Arkansas and Auburn — they went to Columbia and won a four-overtime thriller against the ranked Gamecocks. That was a huge shot in the arm for second-year coach Avery Johnson, who is clearly building something in Tuscaloosa. If Alabama could now back up that victory with a stunner over Kentucky at home on Saturday, the Big Dance starts looking a lot more realistic. And given the Wildcats’ recent struggles, it hardly seems impossible. Trouble is, this might be the Tide’s last shot at a marquee win.
VANDERBILT (12-12, 5-6 SEC)
Strength of schedule: 1
Tucker says: It’s crazy to keep talking about a .500 team with a losing conference record as a potential NCAA Tournament team, but the Commodores are weird. Yes, they lost 4 consecutive SEC games at one point, but they’ve since won road games at Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas and upset Iowa State in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. With 7 top-100 wins (per KenPom), Vanderbilt can still get in the Dance. It has opportunities to impress at Tennessee (Feb. 22) and Kentucky (Feb. 28) and at home in the regular-season finale against Florida (March 4).