To call it mediocre would be a slap in the face of good, solid mediocrity. But that’s where we are.
One year removed from having five SEC teams in the NCAA tournament, three of which made it to the second round, two to the Sweet 16, and one, Kentucky, that went all the way, the conference looks like it might have one automatic qualifier, and a handful of toss-up teams that will be watching the selection show very closely on Sunday.
Florida is in, despite dropping from the No.1 spot in the polls all the way out of the Top 10. The Gators won the SEC regular season and have been picked by many to advance deep, perhaps even to the Final Four.
Beyond that, the conference has more bubbles than a bottle of Krug.
The first and perhaps biggest surprise is the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats, a team looking for a reputation bid after losing 10 games, including six within the conference. The Wildcats were 5-8 outside of Lexington and 4-4 after their star, Nerlens Noel, went down with a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 12.
“When you win 30 games every year for like eight years, you start thinking you are supposed to win 30,” Kentucky coach John Calipari told USA Today after the Wildcats beat Missouri and Florida in a last-ditch bid to make the tournament. “You have coaches go their whole careers and not win 30. Every waking moment has been trying to figure out ways to get through to these guys mentally and emotionally how they had to play…The whole thing (now) is getting in (the tournament).”
Other SEC coaches feel the same way. Tennessee sits on the backside of the bubble with 11 losses. But they went 8-1 from February 10 to the end of the regular season, capping things off with a 64-62 win over Missouri.
“As far as the NCAA tournament is concerned, I feel like the work is done,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said in his press conference after the Missouri win. “I think that just solidifies it, when you look at the résumés of the other teams and look at the things we’ve done to put ourselves in position.”
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Alabama still has hopes, however fleeting. The Tide beat Georgia with a half-court buzzer-beater to close out the regular season with a 20-11 record.
Ole Miss is holding out hope as well, especially after their road win over LSU, and long-shot Arkansas ended the year with a home win over Texas A&M to give the Hogs a 19-12 regular-season record.
No one would fall over from shock if they all those double-digit losers missed out on Selection Sunday. Some team will win the SEC tournament and receive an automatic bid, but if that team turns out to be Florida (and the Gators are a prohibitive favorite) we could be looking at the weakest SEC field in the NCAA tournament in a decade.
Of course, anything can happen.
As Calipari said after his team’s upset win over Florida to close out the regular season, “You may have 40 teams that could get to the Final Four.”
True, but there’s a catch: To get to the Final Four, you first have to be in the Big Dance. And for Kentucky and a host of others in the SEC, that is currently the rub.