SEC could bust big bracket
Posted: Thursday, March 10, 2011 4:27 pm
By: By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — As soon as the regular season was over, Mark Fox spent some time going over his bracket.
Who’s already in with an automatic bid? Who’s struggled down the stretch? Who’s making a late push to grab a bid?
As things stand now, the Georgia coach figures his team has done enough to lock up its NCAA spot. But Fox, of course, isn’t the one making the call. So, it would probably behoove the Bulldogs to win at least one more game in the Southeastern Conference tournament, which begins Thursday at the Georgia Dome.
Ditto for Alabama and Tennessee.
Not to confuse sports, but this tournament should probably be called the Bubble Bowl.
“I don’t know what assures us of getting in,” Fox said. “With our RPI and strength of schedule, you could make an argument that we don’t have to do anything more to get in. But I certainly don’t feel comfortable saying that.”
Only three SEC teams seem assured of NCAA bids, no matter what they do in Atlanta: No. 12 Florida, the regular-season champion; No. 15 Kentucky; and Vanderbilt, which has an RPI rating inside the top 30.
Beyond that, it’s all guesswork:
• Tennessee (18-13, 8-8) has an RPI in the mid-30s and played one of the nation’s toughest schedules, including huge wins over Big East powerhouses Pittsburgh and Villanova. But the Vols are still tainted by a one-point defeat to 20-loss Charlotte and they only finished fifth in the SEC East.
• Georgia (20-10, 9-7) also has a solid RPI (No. 39) and no ugly losses on its resume. On the down side, the Bulldogs lack a bunch of signature wins, outside of beating Kentucky at home.
• Alabama (20-10, 12-4) won the SEC West with the second-best mark within the league. But its schedule was weak, its RPI a dismal 83rd.
Tennessee certainly isn’t taking anything for granted, even though its RPI would normally be considered well within the range for an at-large bid.
“You never want to feel like you’ve done enough,” coach Bruce Pearl said. “We feel like we’ve got something to play for. We know the more we win, the more we’ll improve our resume.”
The tournament starts off with four games, including a downright crucial one for Georgia. The Bulldogs take on last-place Auburn (11-19, 4-12), a steadily improving team that took them to overtime in Athens last month. By most calculations, this is a must-win for Fox’s team.
Tennessee might be in the same boat, trying to avoid a potentially devastating one-and-done when it opens against Arkansas (18-12, 7-9). The Razorbacks beat the Vols early in the season, while Pearl was serving an eight-game SEC suspension for lying to investigators in an NCAA case.
The other games Thursday: South Carolina vs. Mississippi and Vanderbilt vs. LSU.
For those on the outside looking in, such as Ole Miss, the conference tournament provides a second chance to pull out an improbable NCAA bid.
Stranger things have happened. The last time the SEC was in Atlanta back in 2008, a tornado struck the Georgia Dome during the quarterfinals. The remaining games were shifted to Georgia Tech’s campus arena, and last-place Georgia won the tournament — and the automatic NCAA bid — in a stunning upset.
“This is a new life for everybody,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “Most definitely for a team in the situation that we are in. For us, it’s about survival and advance.”
The top two in each division — Florida and Kentucky from the East, Alabama and Mississippi State from West — receive byes into Friday’s quarterfinals.
With the balance of power clearly swinging toward the East this year, there has been talk of changing the brackets for the conference tournament to give a bye to the top four, regardless of which division they play in.
Fox, not surprisingly, is among those who favors a new system.
“I voted to change the format last year,” he said. “This season hasn’t changed my stance on that. I really feel like we need to take a hard look at it.”
Florida is just relishing the thought of coming into the SEC tournament without the pressure of having to play its way into the NCAAs. The Gators missed out in 2008 and ’09, slipped in a year ago.
Now, they’re tuning up for the Big Dance.
“When you focus on just making the NCAA tournament, it’s harder to focus on the goal of winning the SEC championship,” guard Erving Walker said. “You’re focused on how many games you have to win.”
He’ll gladly let other teams fret about that.