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THURSDAY, MARCH 8, 2007
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Kentucky coach Tubby Smith signs basketballs before practice at the SEC tournament site, the Georgia Dome, in Atlanta on Wednesday.
AP photo by John Bazemore
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith signs basketballs before practice at the SEC tournament site, the Georgia Dome, in Atlanta on Wednesday.

SEC, RPI and NCAA
Several teams know tournament
title is lone shot for bid

By Bradley Handwerger
bhandwerger@decaturdaily.com 340-2462

Conventional wisdom heading into this week's Southeastern Conference basketball tournament is that four teams will make the big tournament.

The rest of the pack — most on whom are at 8-8 or 7-9 in the league — are fighting for spots in the NIT, the tournament with all the history and little punch.

How can this be for a conference that rates No. 2 in RPI — the ratings percentage index, a mathematical algorithm used to differentiate between NCAA tournament caliber teams — and No. 1 in strength of schedule, according to realtimeRPI.com?

How can this be when only three of the league's 12 teams have an RPI worse than 65, the number of teams chosen for the NCAA tournament?

Those questions can't easily be answered, but if the conference wants more than Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee to land NCAA bids, this week's SEC tournament in Atlanta's Georgia Dome can be a proving ground for Western Division co-champions Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

The Mississippi schools are the only two in the West with a legitimate claim to the NCAA tournament as no division champ has ever been left out of the field of 65.

For Alabama and Auburn to have a chance, they'll have to win the tournament. Anything else will leave the two state schools in the NIT, at best.

Alabama (20-10, 7-9 SEC)

RPI/strength of schedule: 42 (realtimeRPI.com)/47 .

First-round opponent: Kentucky.

Meeting this season: Alabama 72-61, home, Feb. 17.

Key wins: Xavier (63-56, Nov. 20, 2006), Kentucky.

Key losses: At Auburn (81-57, Jan. 23), Auburn (77-86, Feb. 24), at Notre Dame (99-85, Dec. 7, 2006), at Arkansas (88-61, Jan. 6), at Vanderbilt (94-73, Jan. 17).

A few words: To get into the NCAAs at this point, Alabama almost definitely has to win the SEC tournament. There aren't anymore opportunities for big wins unless the Tide can face Florida in the finals and win. Ronald Steele needs to get healthy quickly for Alabama.

Arkansas (18-12, 7-9)

RPI/strength of schedule: 46/12.

First-round opponent: South Carolina.

Meeting this season: South Carolina 66-60, away, Jan. 24.

Key wins: West Virginia (71-64, Nov. 26, 2006), at Vanderbilt (82-67, March 3).

Key losses: South Carolina, at Auburn (67-59, Feb. 21), LSU (71-67, Feb. 10), at Missouri (86-64, Nov. 30, 2006).

A few words: Stan Heath needs a sweep in the tournament to get the Razorbacks into the NCAAs. The Razorbacks had been in a free fall, losing four of five, before winning two straight to end the season. A run to the NCAAs also might keep Heath around for one more season.

Auburn (17-14, 7-9)

RPI/strength of schedule: 103/39.

First-round opponent: Georgia.

Meeting this season: Georgia 86-79, away, Feb. 17.

Key wins: Alabama (81-57, Jan. 23), at Alabama (86-77, Feb. 24), Tennessee (83-80, Jan. 17), Vanderbilt (68-65, Jan. 6).

Key losses: At Southern Mississippi (56-54, Jan. 2), Texas A&M (87-58, Dec. 22, 2006), neutral site vs. Wisconsin (77-63, Nov. 25, 2006), Pittsburgh (74-66, Dec. 3, 2006).

A few words: Auburn is fighting for a berth in the NIT. Even so, Jeff Lebo, in his third year at Auburn, has done his best coaching job. The Tigers are capable of beating Georgia to open the tournament, but would face No. 1-seed Florida in the second round.

Florida (26-5, 13-3)

RPI/strength of schedule: 9/46.

First-round opponent: Bye.

Meeting this season: N/A.

Key wins: Ohio State (86-60, Dec. 23, 2006), Tennessee (94-78, Feb. 3).

Key losses: Kansas (82-80 OT, Nov. 25, 2006).

A few words: The tournament doesn't mean much to the Gators other than pride. Three wins, which would give Florida the SEC tournament title for the second year in a row, would solidify a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. Other than that, the Gators are biding their time until the real tournament begins.

Georgia (17-12, 8-8)

RPI/strength of schedule: 63/14.

First-round opponent: Auburn.

Meeting this season: Georgia 86-79, home, Feb. 17.

Key wins: Neutral site vs. Gonzaga (96-83, Dec. 16, 2006), at Wake Forest (87-86, Dec. 2, 2006), Kentucky (78-69 OT, Jan. 24).

Key losses: Wisconsin (64-54, Dec. 31, 2006), Western Kentucky (70-67, Nov. 14, 2006).

A few words: Georgia needs a good run to get into the NCAA tournament. Anything short of three wins would keep the Bulldogs out of the NCAAs and put them in the NIT. However, the Bulldogs have lost two straight and three of four.

Kentucky (20-10, 9-7)

RPI/strength of schedule: 12/1.

First-round opponent: Alabama.

Meeting this season: Alabama 72-61, away, Feb. 17.

Key wins: Indiana (59-54, Dec. 9, 2006), Louisville (61-49, Dec. 16, 2006), Tennessee (76-57, Jan. 28).

Key losses: UCLA (73-68, Nov. 21, 2006), Memphis (80-63, Nov. 22, 2006), North Carolina (75-63, Dec. 2, 2006), Alabama.

A few words: Kentucky is believed to be one of four SECteams that already have an NCAAberth locked up, but a first-round loss could put a large dent in the Wildcats' resume. Kentucky's three wins over Indiana, Louisville and Tennessee could be the ones that land an NCAA bid.

LSU (16-14, 5-11)

RPI/strength of schedule: 92/30.

First-round opponent: Tennessee.

Meeting this season: Tennessee 70-67, away, Feb. 6.

Key wins: Texas A&M (64-52, Dec. 5, 2006), Connecticut (66-49, Jan. 6), Florida (66-56, Feb. 24)

Key losses: Wichita State (91-57, Nov. 25, 2006), neutral site vs. Texas (76-75 OT, Dec. 5, 2006), at Washington (88-72, Dec. 20, 2006).

A few words: No team in the conference has fallen further than LSU. It started ranked fifth, fell to seventh before a game was even played, and fell out of the Top 25 not too much later. Star forward Glen Davis has been injured late in the season. The only push LSU is making is to get into the NIT.

Ole Miss (19-11, 8-8)

RPI/strength of schedule: 64/68.

First-round opponent: Bye.

Meeting this season: N/A.

Key wins: Tennessee (83-69, Jan. 24), Alabama (75-69, Feb. 10).

Key losses: At Connecticut (77-59, Nov. 19, 2006), at Memphis (82-70, Dec. 9, 2006), Saint Louis (59-56, Dec. 30, 2006), at LSU (62-55, Jan. 17).

A few words: Ole Miss, despite sharing the Western Division title, most likely needs to win the SEC tournament to reach the NCAAs. The Rebels have the worst strength of schedule in the conference and that could hurt when NCAA bids go out Sunday.

Mississippi State (17-12, 8-8)

RPI/strength of schedule: 65/33.

First-round opponent: Bye.

Meeting this season: N/A.

Key wins: At Miami, Fla. (70-52, Dec. 11, 2006), Vanderbilt (83-70, Feb. 21), Alabama (91-67, March 4)

Key losses: Winthrop (74-63, Nov. 18, 2006), at Clemson (69-66, Nov. 21, 2006), George Mason (63-59, Dec. 30, 2006), at Missouri (83-75, Jan. 2).

A few words: Like rival Ole Miss, Mississippi State likely needs to win the tournament to reach the NCAAs. The Bulldogs, the co-Western Division champion, have no big wins in the SEC. And yet, the Bulldogs are playing some of the best basketball in the SEC down the stretch.

South Carolina (14-15, 4-12)

RPI/strength of schedule: 102/29.

First-round opponent: Arkansas.

Meeting this season: South Carolina 66-60, home, Jan. 24.

Key wins: At Mississippi State (66-63, Jan. 27), Tennessee (81-64, Feb. 17).

Key losses: At UC-Irvine (67-52, Nov. 14, 2006), Kansas (70-54, Jan. 7), Auburn (80-75, Jan. 31).

A few words: Easily the worst team in the SEC, the Gamecocks put together two five-game losing streaks this season. South Carolina won't be invited to the NIT to defend its back-to-back championships. Tennessee (22-9, 10-6)

RPI/strength of schedule: 8/4.

First-round opponent: LSU.

Meeting this season: Tennessee 70-67, home, Feb. 6.

Key wins: Memphis (76-58, Dec. 6, 2006), Texas (111-105 OT, Dec. 23, 2006), Kentucky (89-85, Feb. 13), Florida (83-76, Feb. 27).

Key losses: South Carolina (81-64, Feb. 17), neutral site vs. Butler (56-44, Nov. 22), neutral site vs. North Carolina (101-87, Nov. 24, 2006), at Ohio State (68-66, Jan. 13), at Auburn (83-80, Jan. 17).

A few words: It's no surprise to find out that Tennessee's midseason three-game losing streak coincided with Chris Lofton's absence because of an injury. Once Lofton — a first-team all-SEC selection — returned, the Vols won seven of their final eight. Tennessee is a lock for the NCAA tournament and is playing for seeding now.

Vanderbilt (20-10, 10-6)

RPI/strength of schedule: 36/18.

First-round opponent: Bye.

Meeting this season: N/A.

Key wins: Georgia Tech (73-64, Dec. 9, 2006), Tennessee (82-81, Jan. 10), at Kentucky (72-67, Jan. 20), Florida (83-70, Feb. 17), Kentucky (67-65, Feb. 25).

Key losses: at Auburn (68-65, Jan. 6), at Mississippi State (83-70, Feb. 21).

A few words: Vanderbilt is considered the SEC's fourth sure-bet team in the NCAA tournament. The Commodores went 5-2 in February, including wins over Florida and Kentucky. Seeding is what Vanderbilt is playing for.

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