Now that we've entered February, it's time to start asking the serious questions in life. Who's in the Big Dance, who's out, and who's somewhere in-between?
Don't deny it...that's one of the pressing matters on your mind. Or, at least, I'm going to pretend like it is.
The Southeastern Conference is, as was expected, much stronger than a year before. This is mainly due to the Eastern Division, who has the top four teams in the conference, record-wise, including three ranked teams.
How many teams could the SEC squeeze into the NCAA Tournament? Could every SEC team make some kind of postseason? It's not out of the question; read below for more answers!
NCAA TOURNAMENT LOCKS
#4 Kentucky (22-1, 7-1)
RPI: 6th, Kenpom: 6th, Sagarin: 6th
Best win: vs. #21 Vanderbilt (RPI: 17)
Worst loss: @ South Carolina (RPI: 69)
Overview: The Wildcats have surprised everyone but Kentucky fans, and me more than anyone most likely. The freshman-laden team has been inconsistent as I expected, but the team's pure talent has carried them past those struggles.
The schedule has been weak thus far (83rd in the country) and it toughens up in February. After hosting Alabama at home, the remaining seven games are all against top-100 squads, three against top-50 teams and four of those games are on the road.
Strengths: So much for the Wildcats not being able to shoot from outside the arc. The team shoots 38.6 percent from that range to lead the conference.
Offensively, the Big Blue sit atop the SEC in nearly every way and are highly efficient. When those shots aren't made, though, UK also leads the SEC in offensive rebounding. This is one impressive team.
Weaknesses : There aren't many. Turnovers are the main issue, as Wall (for all of his talent) can get out of control at times. Quick teams with talented defensive guards can make Calipari's squad mortal.
Outlook : The only question for Kentucky is whether they can receive a top seed come Selection Sunday. My guess is no. Kentucky will probably falter a couple of times this month and receive a 2-3 seed in the NCAA's.
I see Kentucky as a solid Elite Eight team, just not sure if the freshmen will be able to endure the pressure it takes to make it past that point.
#14 Tennessee (18-4, 6-2)
RPI: 19th, Kenpom: 19th, Sagarin: 13th
Best win: vs. #1 Kansas (RPI: 1)
Worst loss: @ Georgia (RPI: 90)
Overview : The Vols have suffered some well-publicized off-the-court distractions, but it hasn't seemed to effect them very much, despite playing walk-ons on many occasions.
Considering the losses, including All-American candidate Tyler Smith, this has been a pretty impressive season for Pearl's team. The remainder of the schedule isn't insanely difficult, other than two meetings with Cal's Kentucky squad.
Strengths : I honestly believe, as a team, Tennessee has the best walk-ons in the country, including sharp-shooter Skyler McBee who drained a three to help down top-ranked Kansas.
Tennessee is solid on offense and defense and make the most of each possession. Mid-range jumpshots seem to be Pearl's secret weapon this year.
Weaknesses : Surprisingly, three-point shooting has been weak despite Scotty Hopson's 41.1 percent mark from that range.
With the inside offense of Smith gone, Pearl has switched, sucessfully, to the mid-range game. Rebounding has, however, been exposed at times.
Outlook : Tennessee is guaranteed a spot in the NCAA's, and could even go on a run in February to push their seed into the two to three range, though a four is more likely. Pearl has a way of inspiring his squad, and an Elite Eight push wouldn't surprise me, although a Final Four would take a whole lot of luck.
#18 Vanderbilt (17-5, 6-2)
RPI: 17th, Kenpom: 27th, Sagarin: 20th
Best win: @ #14 Tennessee (RPI: 19)
Worst loss: vs. Western Kentucky (RPI: 171)
Overview : After pulling out 10 in a row, the 'Dores have lost two of their last three and have a somewhat difficult stretch coming up. Vanderbilt has been the surprise in the East that I expected, and will continue to challenge for the division's top spot throughout the rest of the season.
Two more matchups against Tennessee (a win) and Kentucky (a loss) will help determine how the Eastern Division shakes out.
Strengths : Offensive efficiency. The 'Dores are averaging nearly a point per possession, best in the league, and are amongst the top in points per game and field-goal percentages.
Weaknesses : Defense has been lacking, as is the norm under Stallings. With the digression of A.J. Ogilvy, rebounding has become an issue and ball-handling isn't strong either. But when the shots are falling, which is most of the time, this is a very good team.
Outlook : The 'Dores are easily into the Big Dance, and are in a similar situation to that of Tennessee. Anything as high as a three seed is possible, but a four or five is more likely. With the potential of Ogilvy inside and the shooting prowess Vanderbilt has, an Elite Eight wouldn't surprise me.
NCAA TOURNAMENT BUBBLE
Florida (17-6, 6-3)
RPI: 49th, Kenpom: 43rd, Sagarin: 38th
Best win: @ #2 Michigan State (RPI: 12)
Worst loss: vs. South Alabama (RPI: 225)
Overview : One of the league's worst non-conference losses (a home defeat by South Alabama) notwithstanding, Florida has been a very solid squad this year despite the massive offseason loss of Nick Calathes.
After winning eight straight to start the season, including an impressive toppling of second-ranked Michigan State, Florida seemed poised to take the nation by storm. Three-straight losses followed.
That characterizes the Gators' season thus far, though the team has won six of their last seven. With a very difficult February schedule awaiting them, I don't expect that to continue.
Strengths : Think typical Donovan reversed. Defense has been key this season, ranking third in the league in that category. Rebounding and solid free-throw shooting have also been key to Florida's success.
Weaknesses : As suggested in the strengths, Florida's offense misses Calathes. Efficiency is downright bad, and the team's three-point shooting is horrid (31.3 percent, 11th in the SEC). Florida's got tons of talent, but it's not gelling offensively.
Outlook : My feeling is that if Selection Sunday were today (it is Sunday afterall), Florida would be the fourth league team selected.
However, its RPI can't handle many more losses, and the forthcoming schedule may provide them. If the Gators can make it, Florida's talent alone could get them to the Sweet Sixteen.
#25 Ole Miss (17-6, 5-4)
RPI: 36th, Kenpom: 40th, Sagarin: 36th
Best win: vs. Kansas State (RPI: 8)
Worst loss: vs. Arkansas (RPI: 112)
Overview : The Rebels had a strong start to the season, beginning 10-1 against weak competition (save for Kansas State). Two of the team's last three games have been losses, though, including an embarrassing home loss to Arkansas that may have pushed the squad behind in the Western Division race. After a tough upcoming three-game stretch, the season's last four games are all against teams not in the RPI's top 100.
Strengths : Per the usual, offense. Ranking second in the league in scoring and fourth in field-goal percentage, this team can shoot. It began the season with a heralded backcourt, but slashing to the bucket has become Kennedy's main weapon.
Ole Miss ranks just fifth in three-point shooting. Ball-handling, courtesy of the outstanding Chris Warren, should be mentioned here as well.
Weaknesses : Per the usual, defense. In fact, the Rebels are one of the league's worst defending teams and it has cost them several times, including against Arkansas when they gave up 80 points at home.
Interior size is nearly non-existent as well, thus rebounding suffers, especially against teams with lots of size.
Outlook : The Rebels aren't quite as safe as some give them credit for. Despite their ranking, which will be dropped when the new polls arrive, Ole Miss has some tough losses and seem to be an underdog (now that the other two favorites both have wins on the Rebels' home floor) to win their own division.
Ole Miss likely needs to win four or five more games, including a road game or two, to secure themselves an NCAA bid. With little depth or balance, anything past a first-round win is unlikely.
Mississippi State (16-7, 4-4)
RPI: 70th, Kenpom: 38th, Sagarin: 56th
Best win: @ #14 Ole Miss (RPI: 36)
Worst loss: @ Western Kentucky (RPI: 171)
Overview : The Bulldogs have been one of the hardest teams in the league to pin down. The media circus that has become of Renardo Sidney plus a series of injuries have held MSU back from reaching its potential, despite winning 12 of 13 games in November and December.
That seems like distant history now, as the Bulldogs have lost four of its last five games, including two outside the RPI's top 100.
Strengths : Defense. Mississippi State is one of the best all-around defensive teams in the nation, ranking third nationally in field-goal percentage defense.
Interior defense is outstanding due to one of the best interior defenders ever in Jarvis Varnado, and rebounding - per the Stansbury way - is very impressive.
Weaknesses : Offense had also been solid for State, a rarity for MSU, until after the Ole Miss win. Since then, the Bulldogs have been sliding down the offensive charts and the threes that were once falling simply aren't anymore. Ball-handling is also sloppy, and the team's free-throw shooting won't be winning them any games.
Outlook : As of today, the Bulldogs are playing in the NIT. The team's statistics are simply bad, and only a few opportunities remain to bump them up.
If State can pull off winning five of its next eight games, preferrably six, with a win over Kentucky, it might work its way into an at-large bid. With the talent and balance available, a Sweet Sixteen run wouldn't be a surprise if the bid comes.
South Carolina (13-9, 4-4)
RPI: 69th, Kenpom: 79th, Sagarin: 74th
Best win: vs. #1 Kentucky (RPI: 6)
Worst loss: @ Boston College (RPI: 106)
Overview : The Gamecocks have endured a very difficult schedule, and its record shows it. Having lost four of its last six games, Downey has been carrying the team and it simply isn't enough. The team is struggling severely with depth and has from the start of the season.
Strengths : Though Downey isn't efficient, he makes up for it heart. He is South Carolina's only strength, and though he's a big one, one man hasn't been enough.
Weaknesses : Nearly everything. The squad's offense relies almost entirely on Downey, who isn't an efficient scorer. The diminutive team is completely inept on defense and is the league's worst rebounding team.
Contrary to popular belief, Downey has also led the team to the league's worst assist-to-turnover ratio as well.
Outlook : South Carolina is easily the best 13-9 team in the country, but it's not going to be enough come Selection Sunday.
While the schedule has been brutal for the Gamecocks, most of those big games have been losses and there are very few wins like that over Kentucky to help bolster the team's resume.
In fact, the 'Cocks will need a pretty solid showing in February to solidify their NIT bid.
Arkansas (12-11, 5-3)
RPI: 112th, Kenpom: 105th, Sagarin: 111th
Best win: @ #18 Ole Miss (RPI: 36)
Worst loss: vs. South Alabama (RPI: 225)
Overview : Arkansas began the season as an afterthought, starting 2-5. Though the competition has been weak, the 'Backs have now won four-straight league games and are atop the Western division standings by a half-game.
The addition of Courtney Fortson near the beginning of league play obviously provided a much-needed boost, and has made Arkansas far more competitive.
Strengths : While Arkansas isn't specializing in anything, its offense and ball-handling have been competent enough to keep them in most games.
Weaknesses : The team's defense is the worst in the league, rebounding is weak and free-throw shooting is less than mediocre. Depth is also a major concern that must be addressed in the offseason.
Outlook : If Arkansas can keep up its recent momentum, the NIT isn't too unrealistic. Five of the team's remaining games are very winnable, and some wins in the league tournament wouldn't hurt either.
Alabama (13-10, 3-6)
RPI: 107th, Kenpom: 74th, Sagarin: 85th
Best win: vs. Baylor (RPI: 28)
Worst loss: @ Auburn (RPI: 147)
Overview : The Crimson Tide have some nice pieces and are a capable team every night, but don't quite have the depth to compete with the league's front-runners. 'Bama has lost three-straight and six of their last eight, but February's schedule is a bit less challenging and first-year coach Grant could have some tricks up his sleeve.
Strengths : Defense has been key to Alabama's wins this year, including its most recent 57-38 win over LSU, as it ranks second in the conference in field-goal percentage defense. Ball-handling has been average, but a strength comparatively. The team's free-throw shooting has been fairly good, however.
Weaknesses : Offense and offensive pace. Though the Tide rank mid-pack for field-goal percentage shooting, the team's scoring offense is second-worst. Rebounding has also been a liability, despite Green's 7.1 per game.
Outlook : With an improving schedule on the horizon and a capable team, Grant has a chance to make the postseason in his first year. He'll need some help from his team, though, and some luck.
Georgia (10-11, 2-6)
RPI: 90th, Kenpom: 83rd, Sagarin: 91st
Best win: vs. #18 Vanderbilt (RPI: 17)
Worst loss: vs. Arkansas (RPI: 112)
Overview : The Bulldogs have faced the league's toughest schedule, and it shows. What's also evident is Georgia's massive improvements in every facet of the game. Remember, this is (historically) the worst team in the SEC by a longshot.
This perpetual underdog has toppled three ranked teams (#20 Georgia Tech, #8 Tennessee, #18 Vanderbilt), as many as Eastern division front-runners Tennessee and Vanderbilt combined. This squad is no pushover.
Strengths : Offensive efficiency has been impressive for such a relatively untalented team, and the Bulldogs actually ranks second in the SEC in three-point shooting.
Free-throw shooting is best in the league and rebounding has been exemplary. This is going to be a very good team in a few years.
Weaknesses : Conversely, defense has been shaky...albeit against stout competition. Ball-handling and decision-making have a long ways to go as well.
Outlook : Despite some impressive singular performances, the package isn't enough for any real postseason this year. The CBI is likely interested due to Georgia's potential, though. It won't be long before Fox has the Bulldogs back into the Big Dance.
Auburn (11-12, 2-6)
RPI: 147th, Kenpom: 118th, Sagarin: 135th
Best win: vs. Virginia (RPI: 92)
Worst loss: vs. UCF (RPI: 168)
Overview : The Tigers haven't had much go right this season, as I predicted. Lebo is likely on his way out...also a preseason prediction of mine...and the remaining schedule only has a couple of likely wins left. Auburn has lost six of its last eight games.
Strengths : Auburn has managed to score some points, but not efficiently. As a small team, Auburn's on-ball defense has been effective.
Weaknesses : Nearly everything, including defense. Free-throw shooting is worst in the league, ball-handling is suffering from the loss of Quantez Robertson, and rebounding has been poor.
Outlook : The future is dim for Auburn, though a coaching change should help spawn some hope. If the Tigers can get hot, a postseason bid isn't out of the question.
LSU (9-14, 0-9)
RPI: 212th, Kenpom: 189th, Sagarin: 188th
Best win: vs. Indiana State (RPI: 82)
Worst loss: vs. Utah (RPI: 178)
Overview : Tiger fans have been brought down to reality after last season's impressive regular-season SEC championship. Johnson's squad has lost nine-straight, and 12 of its last 13. The team has some talent to build around, but it is going to take some time to effectively rebuild this program.
Strengths : Tasmin Mitchell. Mitchell accounts for 28 percent of the team's scoring, though LSU still places last in the league in scoring. Defense and rebounding have been somewhat decent.
Weaknesses : Depth, offense and rebounding. In fact, most everything about the team that isn't Tasmin Mitchell.
Outlook : While a postseason bid is highly unlikely without a miracle run, LSU has a couple of chances left to reach double digits in wins. Johnson has an uphill battle to climb in rebuilding LSU into the Final Four team it once was.
So there you have it. As of today, I've got five SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament, with Mississippi State just short of becoming the sixth. Stay tuned for more predictions and recaps. Please comment!
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