It’s that time of year. For the next couple of weeks, college basketball will be abuzz with speculation about which teams will fill out the field of 64 in the NCAA tournament, and who will be relegated to NIT or “stay home” status.
For the SEC, the full-court press will not take place on the hardwood, but in the media, as a full-scale lobbying blitz will ensue to get as many teams as possible selected.
Kentucky should be the runaway No.1 seed, but down-ticket the choices aren’t so obvious.
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Vanderbilt should still be a shoo-in, despite an early-season blunder to Cleveland State, and some sporadic play throughout the season, and Florida is looking pretty good, especially after demolishing Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Beyond that, the waters get murky, as subjective criteria (like how well your fan-base travels) get weighed against other schools with similar records and rankings.
Mississippi State, once thought to be a contender to go deep in the tournament, is now on the bubble, despite being a top-25 team as recently as last weekend. The Bulldogs lost ugly at home to a 12-13 Georgia team that is going nowhere, and then blew a 17-point lead to fall to LSU 69-67. Their record of 19-7 suggests tournament worthiness, but being 6-5 in the SEC will give the selection committee a reason to pause. They have Auburn, Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas left. Anything less than a 4-1 run in that stretch could present some problems.
The game to watch will be Mississippi State and Alabama, since that might become a rubber match for both teams. The Tide is 16-9 (5-6 in conference) but Anthony Grant suspended two of his best players in mid-February. Without Tony Mitchell and JayMychal Green, Alabama looked anemic in losing to LSU on the road and to Florida at home. Committee members will take the suspensions into account, but the Tide needs to beat Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi State to prove themselves tournament worthy.
Arkansas and Ole Miss are, most likely, done. The Razorbacks are 0-8 on the road, losing a not-close contest to Tennessee in what was a must-win situation. It was always a long-shot for the Hogs, as Coach Mike Anderson put a freshman-heavy team on the floor almost every night and hoped for the best.
Ole Miss’s chances were always more hope than realism. But even those dreams went up in flames last week when the Rebels were pummeled at home by Vandy 102-76. That loss heightened rumors that the coaching carousel in Oxford might continue. Houston Nutt was shown the door after football season ended, and many experts have speculated that Andy Kennedy needed a tournament appearance to remain with the Rebels.
Whether it was the embarrassment of the score or season-long frustrations, the loss to Vandy led to more troubles as Rebel teammates Jelan Kendrick and Reginald Buckner got into a girlie shoving match outside the locker room and had to be separated by coaches. Kendrick reportedly went on a profanity-laced rant about Buckner’s lack of defensive effort.
“I’ve been doing this for 16 years and when you’re in practice there’s competition and guys are going to get emotional at times,” Kennedy said. “Obviously there’s a line that can’t be crossed.”
Discipline will be meted out accordingly. But for the Rebels (and, perhaps, Kennedy) it will likely be too little too late.