SEC hoping its improved balance pays off in postseason
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Southeastern Conference men's basketball pool appears deeper than usual, even though it's not reflected in the Top 25.
"I think the league top to bottom is the best since I've been here," Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Although No. 1 Kentucky is its sole representative in the Top 25, the SEC has nine schools among the top 60 teams in the RPI, the most of any conference. Some mock NCAA Tournament brackets have six SEC teams making the field: Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi and Texas A&M.
The SEC hasn't received as many as six NCAA bids in one season since 2008. The league earned only three invitations each of the last two seasons.
"I think it's probably by far the strongest that it's been in the last several years," Georgia coach Mark Fox said, "and hopefully we'll see that depth rewarded come March."
But there's no guarantee that will happen.
The SEC has plenty of NCAA Tournament candidates, but only Kentucky can feel certain about earning an invitation. A look at the RPI reflects the precarious fate of the other SEC contenders.
Kentucky is second in the RPI. Other SEC schools in the top 60 are Arkansas (24), Georgia (27), Texas A&M (32), LSU (40), Mississippi (47), Tennessee (54), Florida (57) and Alabama (59). For comparison's sake, the Big 12 has five teams rated 21st or better and the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East each have five schools in the top 30.
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The SEC has outperformed pessimistic early-season projections, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will get more bids than the last couple of years.
"People have a tendency to make a quick knee-jerk reaction on the strength of a league based on early-season play," CBS Sports analyst Doug Gottlieb said. "The reality is the league actually has some really good nonconference wins. Like any league, you have teams figuring it out and starting to put it together. You've got a group of five teams or so that, as long as they can get to 11 or 12 wins in the league and have a win or two over the top of the league and one or two over one of the top teams in other leagues, they're going to have a good argument for getting in."
Gottlieb said the SEC needs its NCAA Tournament contenders to perform well enough in conference play that "there's a clear break" between them and the bottom teams in the league. In that regard, the SEC didn't help itself Saturday.
Georgia (14-6, 5-3 SEC) lost at South Carolina (11-9, 2-6). LSU (16-5, 5-3) fell at Mississippi State (10-11, 3-5). Arkansas (16-5, 5-3) also hurt its cause by losing at Florida (12-9, 5-3). The league is so jumbled that six teams are tied for third place with 5-3 conference records.
Those results reflect the league's improved balance -- and its lack of elite teams beyond Kentucky. SEC Network analyst Dane Bradshaw said the SEC had too many teams last year "that were kind of pushovers" but indicated there's a "night and day" difference in the league's depth this season.
Kentucky's unbeaten record speaks for itself, but other SEC teams also have quality nonconference wins.
South Carolina, which is tied for 11th in the conference standings, beat No. 11 Iowa State on a neutral court and Oklahoma State at home. LSU won at No. 15 West Virginia. Arkansas won at No. 23 SMU. Georgia won at Kansas State. Tennessee beat Kansas State and No. 22 Butler at home.
"Our league is certainly underrated or undervalued top to bottom," Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall said. "Kentucky stands by itself at this point in time, but with the rest of the league, you can be beat on any given night. ... We've got 10 left. We could go 10-0 or 0-10, and that's not exaggerating."