Losses hamper SEC’s at-large hopes
After Saturday, there’s a clear validity in asking whether any Southeastern Conference squad wants to make the NCAA tournament.
With its reputation taking a beating the better part of this season, the conference’s bubble teams in Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and Ole Miss left self-inflicted cuts and scars on already blemished résumés.
Now, there are renewed doubts that only SEC leader Florida (23-5, 13-3) and Missouri (21-8, 10-6) can safely assume their spots in the 68-team field.
As for their bubble brethren, Kentucky (20-9, 11-5) and Tennessee (17-11, 9-7) were slated by bracket aficionados Jerry Palm and Joe Lunardi as headed to Dayton, Ohio, for play-in games to land Nos. 12 and 13 seeds.
Alabama (19-10, 11-5) might be among the final four at-large teams left out of the tournament.
And Ole Miss, which started 6-0 in the SEC, lost at Mississippi State, which might have doomed the Rebels’ NCAA aspirations — imperiling seventh-year coach Andy Kennedy, too.
“We know we’ll have to go to Nashville and get some work done,” Kennedy said Monday, alluding to the a deep run next week at the SEC tournament.
At least the final week of the SEC race will be packed with intrigue.
The drama begins Tuesday when Alabama, which sits at No. 60 in the RPI, treks to Oxford to face Ole Miss, a game essential to the Rebels reviving their March Madness hopes.
Granted, it will be hard for Ole Miss, which is No. 58 in the RPI, after a damaging road loss to rival State, a Bulldogs squad sitting at No. 236 in the index and entered with only six scholarship players along with a 13-game losing skid.
“It was a tough loss,” said Kennedy, whose team has lost four of its past 10 games. “It was a damaging loss to our profile. All that we can try to do now is get ready for the next game.”
Part of Ole Miss’ sputtering monthlong stretch stems from injuries.
Forward Demarco Cox was lost for the season with a stress fracture in his foot in late December. Forward Aaron Jones was lost in the second half of a Jan. 29 loss to Kentucky with an ACL tear.
“Everybody deals with injuries and adversity through the course of the season,” Kennedy said. “It puts a strain on your front line as it relates to rotations.”
Yet Alabama is reeling, too.
The Crimson Tide, which is tied for second in the SEC, entered Saturday with an 0-6 road record against the RPI top 100 and had a prime chance at Florida to add a late RPI top 25 victory. Instead, they squandered an eight-point lead, and Florida used a 15-0 closing run for a
“I’m not that guy that dwells on the past,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said of the loss. “We’ve got a very challenging schedule ahead of us. Any time you lose it’s a tough loss, but we’ve got opportunities in front of us.”
Unlike Kennedy, discussion surrounding Alabama’s postseason fate isn’t a topic Grant wants to broach.
“Every game for us critical,” Grant said. “We can’t control what you guys want to write about or whatever people talk about. Our focus is on trying to take care of ourselves.”
Meanwhile, Kentucky, which is 51st in the RPI, fell by 13 points at Arkansas after the Razorbacks opened the second half on an 11-2 run.
While the loss to the Hogs, whose only home loss is to Syracuse and sit at No. 80 in the RPI, isn’t a death blow, it certainly leaves Kentucky teetering on a cutline and potentially destined for a play-in game.
The chief conundrum before the selection committee is how to evaluate the Wildcats without the presence of freshman forward Nerlens Noel, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament in a Feb. 12 loss at Florida.
“We’ve been without Nerlens for five games there, and took our lumps,” said UK assistant coach John Robic, who spoke to reporters after John Calipari was undergoing a dental procedure. “There’s still a lot of teams out there that are still being evaluated.”
Since his departure from the lineup, UK has gone 3-2, a span that includes defeating
Missouri at Rupp Arena.
On Saturday, Florida arrives in Lexington for the season-finale, and gives the Wildcats — currently tied for second in the SEC — a shot at final marquee victory.
Yet a victory over the Gators would push the Wildcats, who have a No. 46 strength of schedule, to a 7-10 mark against the RPI top 100 teams on its slate. And it’s likely it would assure them a top-four finish and double-bye at the SEC tournament.
Oddly, though, Tennessee finds itself in the inverse position of many peers in spite of a 78-68 loss at Georgia on
Lunardi and Palm still have the Volunteers, winners of six-consecutive until facing the Bulldogs, in the field as a No. 12 seed playing an opening round game in Dayton.
The Volunteers’ profile is also, potentially, the best of the four bubble teams with No. 56 RPI with a No. 53 strength schedule, while seven of its 11 losses came to potential NCAA teams such as Georgetown, Memphis, Oklahoma State and Virginia.
“It’s always on your mind,” Martin said of his team’s tournament status. “For us, you’d like to have a whole body of work, start out the gate strong, finish strong. We’ve done a great job down the stretch (winning) six of the last seven like we did last season.”
Unlike Ole Miss, the Volunteers’ rotation has adapted well to losing Jeronne Maymon to a decision to redshirt in January after a set back in rehabilitation for a surgically repaired knee. Guard Trae Holden is also back from a mid-season hamstring injury.
It’s also coincided with a resurgence by sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes.
“Guys that weren’t expected to play a lot of minutes are thrust into different positions,” Martin said. “We’ve had to move some guards around. We kind of got that thing figured out in the past seven or eight games.”