When the participants of NCAA tournament 2014 are ultimately chosen, the SEC is not going to enjoy the results.
The league's top two squads—Florida, a favorite for a No. 1 seed, and Kentucky, a Top 25 team all season long—are locks for the field of 68, but finding a third deserving representative is no easy task.
Third-place Georgia, whose record is inflated by one of the conference's softest schedules, won’t even show up in the at-large discussion. Behind the Bulldogs, however, is a veritable ocean of bubble teams—a laughably tangled seven-way tie at 7-7 in conference play, including such notable programs as Missouri and Tennessee.
In all probability, some team from that morass will be lucky enough to earn an at-large spot, but who will be the chosen squad? Here’s a look at the four most promising candidates.
Missouri (19-8, 7-7 SEC)
Frank Haith’s Tigers played a better non-conference schedule than many league rivals, winning at home over UCLA and beating N.C. State in Raleigh. However, they’ve also accumulated some bad losses within the league, falling to slumping Alabama on the road and losing at home to Georgia.
A sweep of Arkansas is Mizzou’s biggest advantage right now, but it still has a chance to add one more quality win. In the regular-season finale in Knoxville, the team will try for a season sweep of Tennessee in what could well become a play-in game for the March Madness field.
Arkansas (18-9, 7-7 SEC)
The Razorbacks have a huge opportunity to help themselves on Thursday when they visit No. 17 Kentucky. A road win there—for a sweep of the Wildcats—would be a major statement for a team that’s all of 2-5 in true road games this year.
A defeat at Georgia is the team's only legitimately bad loss, but the Hogs don’t have too many signature wins either. Still, victories over SMU, Clemson and LSU will all be positive factors on Selection Sunday.
LSU (16-10, 7-7 SEC)
Unlike Missouri’s version, these Tigers really hurt themselves with a weak non-conference schedule, failing to record a statement win—sorry, St. Joe’s—and losing at home to Rhode Island.
On the plus side, they’ve been tough at home in the SEC, knocking off Mizzou, Kentucky and Arkansas in Baton Rouge.
However, Saturday’s heartbreaking loss in Lexington left LSU with just one true road win—at lowly South Carolina—making a March 1 showdown with Florida a virtual must-win. If the Tigers can pull off that upset, it will be almost impossible to leave them out of the tournament field, but their chances are microscopic.
Tennessee (16-11, 7-7 SEC)
Tennessee managed two of the best non-conference wins of any non-Gator SEC squad: a rematch victory over Xavier at the Battle 4 Atlantis and a 35-point obliteration of likely ACC champion Virginia.
Who deserves an at-large bid the most?
However, the team's tough schedule has also left it with more losses than many of its competitors, including a disappointing stumble against UTEP in the Bahamas.
In the SEC, the Vols have avoided big disasters, but losses at fellow .500 teams Vanderbilt and Texas A&M won’t help them any either. A road win over LSU in their SEC opener is huge for Cuonzo Martin’s boys, but even if they knock off Missouri in the season finale, they won’t be feeling very secure on Selection Sunday.
Barring any dramatic upsets—especially LSU-Florida—Tennessee will have more quality wins to its credit than any of these teams.
Add in a strength-of-schedule boost from a road loss to Wichita State, plus the home-court advantage in the season-ending clash with Missouri, and the Vols are the best bet to land bid No. 3 for the SEC.