SEC's non-conference woes might be problematic in March

USA TODAY Sports

Usually one of the premier conferences in college hoops, the SEC got a bit beaten up during non-conference play and it remains to be seen how that will look on Selection Sunday.

The SEC has had quite a rough time during non-conference play, and the implications probably won't be felt until the bubble bursts for hopeful teams on Selection Sunday.

As Sports Illustrated writes, the SEC is only 3-11 against the top 25 this year and has just one win over a top 10 team. As of Monday night, the SEC is the ninth-ranked conference in terms of RPI, via RealTimeRPI.com.

The SEC currently has only two teams ranked in the top 25 polls -- the Missouri Tigers and the Florida Gators each within the top 15. Other than that, it hasn't been a good non-conference for the SEC.

The Kentucky Wildcats have been the highest-profile fall from grace for the conference. John Calipari's squad started the preseason ranked No. 3 but back-to-back losses against Notre Dame and Baylor sent them nose-diving out of the rankings. They are 0-4 against RPI top 50 teams with a victory over Maryland to open their season as their lone win against a team in the RPI top 100.

Going through most of the teams' non-conference schedules reveals a blemish or two. The Texas A&M Aggies lost to the Southern University Jaguars at home. The Alabama Crimson Tide dropped consecutive home games to Mercer and Tulane. The Tennessee Vols mustered just 36 points in a loss to Georgetown at the end of November (sadly they lost by only one point). Each squad in the conference has two losses already, the only BCS conference with that distinction so far.

Florida Gators coach Billy Donovan told Sports Illustrated it is a little too early to start the bursting of SEC bubbles.

"If you want to say at this point in time, the SEC's maybe had some difficult, challenging, tough losses... I think that's a fair assessment,'' Donovan said. "But to say the league is down or bad, I don't think that would be fair until we've seen the whole thing play out.''

Donovan's Gators sit in an enviable position in the SEC, however. They are currently ranked No. 15 in the RPI and have solid wins against Wisconsin, Marquette and Florida State. Their two losses were by one point on the road against Arizona and by six points against Kansas State.

A lot of people were expecting it to be a rough go for the SEC after the NBA draft did a number the conference. Twelve SEC players were drafted into the NBA last year, including the top three picks.

The old logic used to be that if a team from one of the Power Six conferences went .500 in conference play it was usually enough to get a call from the committee to keep on playing in March. But as more mid-major teams have started to crash the party, it has gotten increasingly difficult for big teams without marquee non-conference wins to rely on the strength of the conference.

Last year, the Washington Huskies became the first team in modern history from a BCS conference to learn that lesson the hard way. The Huskies won the regular conference season in the Pac-12, but lost the conference tournament and the committee didn't grant them an at-large berth. The Huskies finished Pac-12 play with a 14-4 record, but a down Pac-12 year took its toll. The committee penalized the Huskies for lacking any sort of marquee win -- Washington went 0-5 against teams in the RPI top 50.

The SEC currently draws a stark similarity to the Pac-12's predicament last year -- which saw only two Pac-12 teams dancing in the tournament. The SEC isn't as bad, but the discrepancy between the top and the bottom of the league is pretty heavy. Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State are all RPI sub-200 teams.

Florida, Missouri, Texas A&M and Kentucky have five games against these teams. Just one loss to any of them will be a sore spot on the record come bubble watch time, and just playing them is bound to take the RPI computer rankings down a notch.

The thought of a team like Kentucky missing the tournament seems surreal, but it could be a possibility depending on how the rest of the season plays out. Kentucky sits right on the cusp with an RPI ranking of 62. A loss to Mississippi State would be a big hit for a team whose most impressive game looks to be a three-point loss to Louisville.

Donovan is right and the postseason hopes for the SEC are far from over. But, for more teams than the nation is normally used to seeing from the conference, it will be an uphill climb.

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