Harris: SEC squads face different strain of bubble trouble

Mississippi guard Marshall Henderson (22) dunks the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/The Daily Mississippian, Thomas Graning) Show caption
Mississippi guard Marshall Henderson (22) dunks the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/The Daily Mississippian, Thomas Graning)

Dub this a no-win week for the SEC’s bubble teams.

Literally, no one has won a game.

Every one of them pressed the muzzle of a shotgun to their big toe and squeezed the trigger.

Missouri, Tennessee, LSU and, for the sake or argument, Ole Miss are hobbling around, trying to figure out how to triage their suddenly wounded NCAA tournament aspirations.

Sure, we could call it the muddled middle of the SEC — where six teams are within a game of one another — a matter of parity. Instead, it’s probably best to stop looking for reasons why anyone aside from Kentucky and Florida deserve to be a part of the 68-team field in March.

Let’s take a tour through the rusted and dented hulks that couldn’t survive the demolition derby over the past seven days:

For Ole Miss, which gorged on cupcakes over the first eight games of SEC play, this stretch could have been validation after a 6-2 start. Instead, the Rebels wheezed and coughed in an 80-64 loss to No. 18 Kentucky on Wednesday.

The Rebs’ middling résumé, a No. 59 spot in the RPI and a 3-6 record against the top 100 needed sprucing up. Beating Kentucky would have done the trick. Instead, they whiffed. Now coach Andy Kennedy’s team waits two weeks until it can host No. 3 Florida and UK at the Tad Smith Coliseum.

Mizzou has back-slid since a 12-1 start, going 5-5 in the past month. Including in that span are a home loss to Georgia, a road defeat to Vanderbilt and losses to the Wildcats and Gators — the latter of which came by 10 points Tuesday — that leave the Tigers touting just a lone win (vs. UCLA) against the RPI’s top 50.

On Monday, MU was slotted as a No. 12 seed by ESPN tournament guru Joe Lunardi, who had coach Frank Haith’s team — now 4-10 in SEC road games in the past two seasons — among the last four teams to sneak into the field. One can imagine a loss Saturday at Ole Miss putting Mizzou on the (projected) stoop.

And Tennessee?

The Volunteers lost at home to Vanderbilt, which is somehow 5-4 in the SEC despite playing with a skeleton crew of seven scholarship players. Cuonzo Martin has made a habit of ripping the NCAA tournament committee by implying it treats the SEC as a run-of-the-mill mid-major.

Then comes LSU, which had used a sterling week at home against Kentucky and Arkansas to elbow its way back into the tourney discussion. Entering the week, the Tigers were No. 54 in the NCAA’s RPI calculations, had won four of their past five, notched a marquee win against the Wildcats and at 5-3 climbed into the thick of the race for a top-four finish in the league.

Games against Georgia and Auburn don’t bolster your case to the selection committee. But earning a bid is akin to protecting your credit rating: You don’t improve your score by doing what you should. It’s the foul-ups that deem you a risk.

Programs worthy of a bid beat also-rans and move on. Instead, LSU, already saddled with sub-100 RPI losses to Rhode Island and Alabama, let an anemic Georgia offense score 44 points in the lane, shoot 46 free throws and roll up 91 points in a 91-78 road loss Thursday.

Instead of pulling into a tie with Ole Miss for third in the SEC and occupying a potential No. 4 seed SEC tournament seed with nine games to go, LSU is clumped in again with a group of squads generously described as average. Oh, and LSU would now be the No. 7 seed in Atlanta.

The boost added from knocking off Kentucky, which helped push the Tigers’ projected RPI to 50, is gone. On Friday, it was forecast to land around 60 — exactly where it sat before the Wildcats slipped up at the Ice Dome last week.

If this were the Big 12, where at one point Baylor was 1-5 in league play and still ranked, then we’d talk about the brutal parity teams face each week.

There’s parity, to be sure. It’s just among teams that might land just one NCAA tournament berth.

With mangled stumps for feet, the only question is whether the knife is being sharpened, too. Knowing the SEC so far, it’ll sacrifice its nose by slicing it off its battered face.