The SEC Tournament is a little under two weeks until tip-off, but there are plenty of squads that are likely already looking ahead to the festivities at the Bridgestone Arena.
Two losses in their last three games probably put the No. 8 Florida Gators out of the No. 1 seed conversation for the NCAA tournament. But any undesirable result in the conference tourney may send Billy Donovan's squad on a spiral, possibly all the way down to a No. 3 or No. 4 seed.
However, as always, conference tournaments are most important to the teams sitting squarely on the bubble. The SEC has the worst RPI of any "major" conference and sits eighth overall, behind the likes of the Mountain West and Atlantic 10. These aren't the glory days of southern basketball, so while records may look respectable for some teams, their overall résumés leave much to be desired.
That means bubble teams will desperately be looking for great performances. With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of the SEC schools most in need of a deep conference tourney run.
Kentucky Wildcats (20-8, RPI: 50)
Ostensibly left for dead following Nerlens Noel's season-ending knee injury, the Wildcats have responded in fine form without their dominant big man. After getting obliterated by Tennessee in their first game without Noel, they reeled off three consecutive victories to end the month of February.
Granted, two of those wins came against SEC doormats Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. But Kentucky's overtime thrill ride versus Missouri was enough to put John Calipari's squad firmly back into the field of 68—barely. ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the defending champions as one of the last four teams in the field, meaning any negative result over the next two weeks could spell an NIT trip.
Still, even without Noel manning the middle it's hard to fathom this Kentucky squad sticking in the field. Ken Pomeroy rates the Wildcats inside the top 25 of effective field goal percentage on both ends of the floor, and they have been increasingly efficient on the offensive end.
Willie Cauley-Stein stepped into the starting lineup when Noel went down and has been effective. He was dominant on the inside versus Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, and though he struggled on the offensive end versus Missouri, Cauley-Stein still blocked a whopping seven shots in that contest.
Kentucky will be looking for the latter more than the former going forward. Cauley-Stein will have to do his best Noel impersonation to not only keep the Wildcats on the winning track, but to also convince the committee that they are still a tournament-level team talent-wise.
Tennessee Volunteers (17-10, RPI: 52)
One win obviously doesn't lock any team into the tournament, but Tennessee's upset of Florida on Tuesday could be the validation of its worthiness. The Volunteers have won six straight games since a Feb. 6 loss to Georgia, improving themselves from barely above .500 to firmly on the bubble in less than a month.
It's been a surprising climb for a Volunteers squad that started SEC play looking like the human embodiment of SEC algae. They began conference play with three straight losses, barely came away with one-point victories over Alabama and Vanderbilt and then suffered critical defeats at the hands of Arkansas and Georgia at the beginning of February.
It felt very much like a repeat of Cuonzo Martin's first season in Knoxville. Tennessee barely stayed above .500 last season, finishing 19-15 and losing in the second round of the NIT.
However, the Volunteers' late surge may be coming at a perfect time in 2013. Mediocrity is boundless in college basketball this season, and their 3-4 record versus teams inside the RPI Top 50 could be of major service.
But with three regular-season games remaining, it will be interesting to see whether Tennessee can keep up its hot play. If Martin can lead his team to three more victories to end the season—and it's very possible that he can—then the Volunteers would be a mortal lock before the conference tournament.
A slip up, particularly at Auburn or Georgia, and all the hard work to build this season back up could come crumbling down.
Ole Miss Rebels (21-7, RPI: 55)
Though Ole Miss remains one of the few regularly entertaining teams in college basketball this season, things have devolved a bit since Marshall Henderson was the talk of the nation in January. The Rebels are just 5-5 over their past 10 games, including head-scratching losses to South Carolina and Texas A&M.
Over that time, Ole Miss has learned the hard way that there is a fine line between lovable gunner and irresponsible shot-jacker. Henderson has shot just 36.1 percent over the past 10 contests. He was especially abysmal in four of the Rebels' last five losses—a 25-point performance versus Florida the only exception—which makes it hard to wonder whether they would be better off re-emphasizing Henderson's offensive responsibilities.
Related: Among players who use 20 percent or more of their teams' possessions, Henderson ranks 89th in the nation in terms of efficiency, per Pomeroy. That doesn't bode well for Ole Miss.
As a team, the Rebels have actually become somewhat predictable in terms of results. They beat bad teams (for the most part) and lose against good ones. They have just one win against the RPI Top 50, home versus Missouri, which came in mid-January and won't look that impressive come Selection Sunday.
With games against weak opponents the rest of the regular season, the Rebels' tournament journey is imperative. Their overall record may look good by year's end, but that carries little significance if there isn't a notable win.
Ole Miss will need a relatively deep run and a win against a RPI Top 50 team to lock itself into the Big Dance no matter what happens the remainder of the season.
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