The 2012 SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament commences at noon on Thursday at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, La.
Eighth-seeded LSU will face off against ninth-seeded Arkansas for the right to play Kentucky, who received a bye as the top-seeded team in the tournament.
Getting to play the No. 1 team in America may seem like an impossible assignment. For a few teams in the SEC, the only visible road to the NCAA tournament is through Kentucky and, more specifically, winning the SEC Tournament.
The SEC, while not as deep as the Big East, is similar in that they are both top-heavy with an elite team running away with the regular-season conference title and feature some very talented teams in their second tiers.
Both conference's first and second tiers are pretty locked into the tournament, but how do the third-tier teams measure up?
Here’s a look at what each team in the SEC needs to accomplish to get into the NCAA tournament.
The season has been painful for Arkansas
Arkansas is the class of this bunch, with wins over Mississippi State, Michigan and Vanderbilt. Arkansas’ lack of talent just couldn’t keep it together and wrapped up the regular season losing seven of their last nine.
Arkansas can look back at its schedule and circle two losses to Ole Miss and a 22-point February defeat as the main culprits for missing the tournament. Had they won any two of those three games, Arkansas would be solidly on the bubble, if not in altogether.
Also, Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina had especially disappointing seasons. The only chance any of the four have of making the NCAA tournament would be to win the SEC Tournament.
With Kentucky looming, I suggest booking tee times rather than hotel rooms.
Mississippi (18-12, 8-8 SEC)
Strength of Schedule: 36
Quality wins: Miami, Mississippi State, Alabama
Ole Miss has done it ugly, but its body of work may be enough to get it into the tournament with a little help. The Rebels started the season 9-1, including a win against Miami, but the 30-point loss to Marquette proved to be a reality punch in the gut.
Following their nice start, the Rebels dropped three straight to Southern Miss, Middle Tennessee and Dayton. Ole Miss pieced together enough wins to stay even in the SEC, but two double-overtime losses by a combined three points to Auburn and Alabama hurt the Rebels’ campaign.
Their inability to string together any kind of consistency is also a determining factor.
That was until last week, when Ole Miss beat LSU by 22 and then pulled off a two-point victory against Arkansas. Finally, Ole Miss pulled off a must-win game against Alabama on Saturday.
Mississippi may be able to play its way into the tournament. A trip to the SEC final could do it, with that road potentially going through Auburn, Tennessee or Vanderbilt.
Louisiana State (17-13, 7-9)
Strength of Schedule: 61
Quality wins: Marquette, Mississippi State
Finishing under .500 in-conference probably kills LSU, unless it can take out Arkansas and Kentucky in the SEC tourney. After a mediocre 3-3 start that included losses to Coastal Carolina and South Alabama, the Tigers got hot and won eight of their next nine, including wins over No. 10 Marquette and Ole Miss.
LSU proceeded to struggle through the SEC season, but seemed to find a groove during a four-game winning streak. LSU even took out No. 23 Mississippi State in a double-overtime thriller.
Unlike Ole Miss, LSU stumbled across the finish line, dropping three straight. LSU’s last game, a 15-point loss at Auburn, was likely the nail in the coffin.
A win or two in the SEC tournament should have Vols fans singing Rocky Top for another week or so.
Tennessee (18-13, 10-6)
Strength of Schedule: 32
Quality wins: Florida (twice), Vanderbilt
Tennessee is one heck of a comeback story. It started out 3-6, with its wins coming from some less-than-spectacular opponents. But, some of its losses weren’t so good, such as Oakland and Austin Peay. With that in mind, the Vols also dropped games to Duke and Memphis.
Tennessee picked it up a little with four straight wins against slightly more mediocre competition. Memphis got its revenge against Tennessee, but three days later, the Vols took out the Florida Gators.
Tennessee then dropped three straight to Mississippi State, Kentucky and Georgia, but ended that slide with a three-point win over fellow bubble team Connecticut.
Tennessee closed the season winning eight of its last nine, including a second victory over Pittsburgh and a seven-point win over Vanderbilt.
The selection committee weighs how a team finishes the season, and Tennessee finished just as well as anyone.
Tennessee earned the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament and awaits the winner of Ole Miss and Auburn. As long as there aren’t a lot of upsets in the mid-major tournaments, Tennessee should be in, but a win or two in the SEC tourney would serve as tournament glue.
Alabama (20-10, 9-7)
Strength of Schedule: 16
Quality wins: Wichita State, Purdue, VCU
The Crimson Tide rolled through their first seven games, including a Puerto Rico Tip-Off title over Maryland, Wichita State and Purdue.
Alabama struggled briefly, dropping three out of four to Georgetown, Dayton and Kansas State, but got right back on track against Oklahoma State to start a five-game winning streak.
Once again, Alabama ran into trouble, dropping four in a row to Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and…ahem…South Carolina.
The Tide shook off the losing streak and won seven of its next nine, but a season-closing loss to Ole Miss could do damage in lowering Alabama’s seed.
Alabama would do well for itself to take care of South Carolina in the first round of the SEC Tournament, and then work on Florida.
A win over Florida would do wonders to prevent Alabama from falling into the dreaded 12th-seed play-in games. However, with JaMychal Green missing four games due to suspension (he's since returned) and Tony Mitchell's dismissal from the team, some extra games might help.
Mississippi State (21-10, 8-8)
Strength of Schedule: 65
Quality wins: Arizona, West Virginia, Alabama
Mississippi State started the season 19-5 and was in cruise control to an NCAA tournament berth. Its first half of the season included wins over then-No. 18 Texas A&M and then-No. 16 Arizona. While the Arizona win isn’t bad, the win over Texas A&M isn’t nearly as impressive, as the Aggies have gone bad.
The Bulldogs had a shot at beating Baylor just before the New Year, but a layup in the closing seconds gave Baylor the two-point victory.
After win No. 19, the Bulldogs tanked, losing five straight games—the first two of which were two-point overtime losses to Georgia and LSU.
Auburn, Kentucky and Alabama rounded out the five, but just when you thought they were down and out, along came South Carolina to bail them out.
Mississippi State finished with a win over the Gamecocks and then beat Arkansas by 20.
The Bulldogs would be in if the NCAA tournament started today, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to take care of the other Bulldogs from Georgia on Thursday night to strengthen that ticket.
Kentucky (30-1, 16-0)
Strength of Schedule: 42
Quality wins: Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville, Florida
Florida (22-9, 10-6)
Strength of Schedule: 53
Quality wins: Florida State, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt (21-10, 10-6)
Strength of Schedule: 6
Quality Wins: Marquette, Florida
All three of these teams have their tickets punched already. While Florida and Vandy have split the season series, neither can touch Kentucky. In the 22 games since the last-second loss to Indiana, only Tennessee, Alabama and Vanderbilt have come within six points of the Wildcats.
Wunderkind Anthony Davis is a shot-blocking machine, and John Calipari seems poised to finally pick up that NCAA championship that has eluded him.
Of course, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams and a few other coaches will have something to say about that, but Kentucky is already going to New Orleans for the SEC Tournament. At the rate the Wildcats are taking down teams, perhaps they should get a monthly rate in the Big Easy.