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SEC Hoops Review: The Early-Season Breakdown

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A full breakdown of roughly the first third of the regular season.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

In a break from our regularly-scheduled programming, I present the SEC early season review.  With most of the conference playing a light schedule (or completely off) due to the Christmas holidays, I'll be condensing last week and the upcoming week into a single review.  For this week, I'm throwing together a few things of interest.

How Many Tournament Bids Will the SEC Get?

It's been a matter of some shame for the conference that the league has only managed three bids in each of the last two seasons -- and really, the league might have been lucky even to get that many (with Ole Miss needing to win the SECT to get in in 2013, and Tennessee playing in the First Four last year.)

Luckily, that doesn't appear to be the case this year.  (Note that all RPI-related numbers are from Jerry Palm at cbssports.com.)

Tier 1: You're Kidding Me, Right?
  • Kentucky (13-0; RPI: 1; SOS: 4; 6-0 vs. Top 50; 3-0 road/neutral; 6-0 vs. non-Top 100)

I don't think I really need to waste much ink on Kentucky's NCAA chances.  It will be shocking if the Wildcats do not get a #1 seed.

Tier 2: Just Don't Screw This Up
  • LSU (9-2; RPI: 21; SOS: 35; 1-1 vs. Top 50; 3-2 road/neutral; 5-1 vs. non-Top 100)
  • Arkansas (10-2; RPI: 29; SOS: 105; 2-1 vs. Top 50; 1-2 road/neutral; 7-1 vs. non-Top 100)
  • Georgia (7-3; RPI: 23; SOS: 9; 1-2 vs. Top 50; 1-3 road/neutral; 4-0 vs. non-Top 100)

All three of these, at least early on, have the makings of solid tournament resumes.  LSU and Arkansas look to be in slightly better shape; while both have a bad loss to Clemson, both also have a "signature win" with LSU beating West Virginia (on the road, no less) and Arkansas beating Dayton.  That's a bit better than Georgia, who needs Seton Hall's RPI to hang in the top 50 all year (currently the Pirates are #22.)  But the Bulldogs also don't have any bad losses, and Mark Fox can point to his team's strong non-conference schedule if anybody asks.  Basically, these three teams are in the same boat: finish 11-7 (or better) in the SEC, and don't lose to any of the three bottom-feeders (Auburn, Missouri, and Mississippi State), and you're probably going to the tournament.

Tier 3: Banking On SEC Play
  • Texas A&M (7-3; RPI: 54; SOS: 75; 0-2 vs. Top 50; 2-3 road/neutral; 6-1 vs. non-Top 100)
  • Alabama (7-3; RPI: 46; SOS: 56; 0-2 vs. Top 50; 1-3 road/neutral; 8-0 vs. non-Top 100)
  • Ole Miss (8-3; RPI: 88; SOS: 116; 0-0 vs. Top 50; 5-0 road/neutral; 7-2 vs. non-Top 100)
  • Tennessee (7-4; RPI: 86; SOS: 61; 1-2 vs. Top 50; 1-4 road/neutral; 5-1 vs. non-Top 100)
  • South Carolina (6-3; RPI: 95; SOS: 94; 0-1 vs. Top 50; 2-2 road/neutral; 5-1 vs. non-Top 100)
  • Florida (7-4; RPI: 101; SOS: 82; 0-3 vs. Top 50; 2-3 road/neutral; 5-0 vs. non-Top 100)

To a certain degree, all of these teams are banking on SEC play.  Alabama and Tennessee did minimal damage to their profile in non-conference play, and Tennessee can even boast a strong SOS and a win over Butler (though also a loss to Marquette, who's currently outside the top 100.)  But that's as good as it gets.  (Sorry, Alabama, UCLA doesn't count as a good win, at least not right now.)  Both have some serious work to do in conference play, but they're probably among those with the least work to do -- but in the Vols' case, are you buying them as the kind of team that could go 12-6 in the SEC?

Texas A&M is helped by that weird quirk in the RPI where they haven't played any truly awful teams, but the best win over their resume is... Sam Houston State?  Yeah, they've got some work to do.  Ole Miss has not lost a single game away from the Tad Pad, but they've lost at home to Western Kentucky and Charleston Southern.  And given their weak SOS, I'm not convinced TCU's RPI will hold up if the Frogs do poorly in the Big 12 meat grinder.  So that could be three bad losses at home before conference play even starts.

The last two teams, South Carolina and Florida, are both loved by margin of victory-based metrics like Pomeroy and Sagarin, but they get no love from the RPI.  Both have played multiple sub-300 RPI teams and that's currently weighing them down; in addition, Florida's best win is over Yale, which isn't anything to write home about; although Texas Southern is strangely a Top 100 team in the RPI after wins over Michigan State and Kansas State.  South Carolina does at least have a win over Oklahoma State (currently #51) and can pick up another in non-conference play against Iowa State.  Florida still has to play UConn, who's only #70 in the RPI.  On the other hand, these are probably the two best teams in this group and have the best chance of helping themselves in SEC play -- but the non-conference portion of the schedule likely needs them to go 12-6 or even 13-5 and pick up some wins over LSU/Arkansas/Georgia.  But at least that's doable.

Tier 4: Why Did Stallings Put Together That Schedule?
  • Vanderbilt (7-3; RPI: 123; SOS: 157; 0-2 vs. Top 50; 1-2 road/neutral; 6-0 vs. non-Top 100)

There's nothing too terrible about this profile.  Playing Lipscomb, Western Carolina, Penn, and Tennessee State, though, is dragging down the SOS and makes the tournament an uphill battle.  Adding St. Louis (RPI: 250) won't help, either.  We know why Stallings put together this non-conference schedule, because it's clear that with a young team, the NCAA was going to be a longshot either way -- but now our backs are against the wall.  13-5 in the SEC?  14-4?  It might take that kind of a performance to get in the tournament, because as of right now there's zero heft to Vanderbilt's tournament resume.  Missed opportunities against Baylor and Georgia Tech -- the two top 50 teams we've played -- aren't helping, and the loss to Rutgers, aside from potentially being a bad one (Rutgers is currently 90 in the RPI but could drop), means that Vandy missed a no-lose opportunity against Virginia.

Tier 5: Bad Teams
  • Auburn (6-5; RPI: 152; SOS: 133; 0-0 vs. Top 50; 1-4 road/neutral; 4-3 vs. non-Top 100)
  • Missouri (4-6; RPI: 172; SOS: 37; 0-2 vs. Top 50; 0-4 road/neutral; 3-2 vs. non-Top 100)
  • Mississippi State (5-5; RPI: 204; SOS: 189; 0-0 vs. Top 50; 1-3 road/neutral; 5-4 vs. non-Top 100)

Not really much to say with any of these.  Missouri has at least played a tough non-conference schedule, but this is a case where overscheduling probably only hurt them.  Auburn and Mississippi State have played lousy schedules and put up mediocre records against them.

The point of all this, though, is that it's actually pretty difficult to see the SEC getting only three bids again.  Kentucky is... well, they're in, and it's kind of hard to see Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia missing the tournament unless they go into the tank.  You've also got a mass of teams that don't have much on the resume right now but unlike last year, it's actually possible to help your resume in SEC play.  The real key is going to be separation: what the league wants to avoid is having a mass of teams stuck between 8-10 wins in conference play.  It would actually be really helpful for a few teams to go 12-6 or better in conference play, and of course it will be helpful if those teams also avoid losing to the conference dregs.  (Also note that ESPN's RPI formula somehow makes the SEC look better than Palm's.)