In three days, the potential for mass panic and confusion arrives at Bridgestone Arena. Or the squall line will skirt the fringes of Nashville, Tenn.
This new-and-improved Southeastern Conference lineup arriving for its tournament feels appropriately blasé. Parity is thrown around as a descriptor but matters little when the quality of the product isn’t up to snuff.
A grand total of three games separate second-place Ole Miss from ninth-place LSU, but if the Big Ten Conference’s pile-up is comprised of Audis and Mercedes then the SEC’s is a scrap heap of Datsuns and beater Corollas.
No. 11 Florida, the SEC’s regular season champion, is a legitimate Elite Eight contender, but the quality drops precipitously.
The Gators are sixth in the RPI, according to Jerry Palm. And then the SEC doesn’t have another program until Missouri at No. 34 — a squad that heads into the conference tournament as the No. 6 seed. Kentucky, who is the No. 2 seed, sits at 50th in the index.
That’s right, the SEC put just three teams in the RPI top 50, trailing the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West conferences, which each placed five programs in that section of the rankings.
Granted, the SEC packs UK, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Alabama between in slots between Nos. 50 and 61. That’s better known as prime bubble territory for the NCAA tournament, a notion confirmed by looking at analyses from Palm and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
Their S-Curve projections, better known as a preference order for tourney hopefuls, have UK and the Volunteers squeaking in, while the Rebels and Crimson Tide are among the first eight teams waiting until late Sunday night for their NIT seeding.
It’s become rote to bash the SEC, a dominant football conference, for its lackluster hoops programs, and this isn’t meant to pile on.
The point simply is that if upsets run rampant and produce a Tennessee-Ole Miss final, there shouldn’t be praise doled out for how closely the league’s teams resemble each other.
And admiration shouldn’t be heaped on the Gators if they breeze to an SEC tourney title either, given the quality of the field.
So, what theme applies? Utter desperation.
The Gators want to get back to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, while UK, UT, Ole Miss and Bama all could use two additional wins to bolster thin at-large résumés. Whether Ole Miss can wipe out sub-230 RPI losses in recent weeks to Auburn and Mississippi State with a run is intriguing.
Let’s not mistake it for the same brawls we should expect to see in the final true Big East Conference tournament, where seven RPI top-50 teams — half the conference — descend on Madison Square Garden in New York.
But drama, tight finishes and buzzer beaters that make up March’s trademark melodrama have a way of creating revisionist history.
So, this is your polite reminder to avoid that folly. No matter how tantalizing the games appear to be.
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