Twenty victories. A winning conference record. An RPI under 40. A strength of schedule that ranks in the nation’s upper 35. Only one loss to a team outside the RPI top 50.
That should be enough to gain entry to the NCAA tournament. And if the field were to be set today, Georgia — the owner of the above worksheet — would probably make it. But the field won’t be set until Sunday, and there’s the tangle.
The one thing Georgia needed to avoid in the SEC tournament, which begins Thursday at the Georgia Dome, was a de facto NCAA play-in game against Alabama, to whom the Bulldogs lost over the weekend. Assuming Georgia beats Auburn on Thursday, guess who awaits at 1 p.m. Friday?
The Tide is one of the strangest cases in bracket-seeding history: Its RPI is 81, and a team from a major conference can have an RPI 30 places higher and still be excluded from the only tournament that matters. (That one Georgia loss to a team outside the RPI top 50? Against Bama.) But this RPI laggard won the SEC West with a record of 12-4 and came within a game of tying Florida for the overall regular-season title.
Bracketologists have gone forth and back on the Tide for a month: Can the NCAA committee take a team that played only one team of consequence (Purdue, to which Alabama lost by 19 points) in non-conference and holds a strength-of-schedule rating of 147? That said, shouldn’t the conference season in a major league count for something? That said, doesn’t the committee always look first to RPI? If so, could it possibly justify taking the Tide over, say, Georgia?
Extremely definitive answer: Maybe, assuming the team with the RPI of 81 beats the team with the RPI of 37 twice in seven days at the shank of the regular season.
The Bulldogs haven’t helped themselves much. They’ve had an uneventful 20-win season. Only three of those 20 victories came against teams in the RPI top 50. (UAB on Dec. 3, Kentucky on Jan. 8, at Tennessee on Feb. 19.) Georgia lost four games at home in January and February, all against teams with a stronger RPI. Had the Bulldogs gone 2-2 in those games, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, but they didn’t and we are.
When Georgia won at Tennessee last month, the belief here was that, barring a loss to a lesser light, the Bulldogs were all but in. Sure enough, Georgia disposed of South Carolina and LSU. And yet: As of Monday morning, the famous Joe Lunardi of ESPN has Georgia as his second team out, Alabama being the first, while Jerry Palm of CBSsports.com has Georgia in as a No. 9 seed but Alabama as his first team out. And now the committee stands to be handed a side-by-side comparison: Georgia’s body of work versus Alabama’s.
It’s possible both Georgia and Alabama could make the field no matter what happens this week. Possible, but not probable. The SEC’s RPI is only sixth-highest, behind even the Mountain West’s. It would be difficult to invite half the membership of such a conference. It’s also conceivable Tennessee, which has lost six of its past nine games, could be the team omitted — except that the Vols have seven wins against the RPI top 50, plus an RPI of 33 and the nation’s No. 2 strength of schedule. (On the other hand, is the committee apt to give Bruce Pearl the benefit of any doubt?)
The SEC bracket does Georgia no favors. To reach the final, it would have to beat Auburn on Thursday, Alabama on Friday and surely Kentucky — which closed the regular season by beating Florida, Vanderbilt and Tennessee — on Saturday. There’s no denying the Bulldogs’ talent, but there’s question about their depth. It’s hard to imagine this team winning four games in four days, but not as hard as it was to imagine the 2008 team winning four in four days, the final three in the space of 28 hours, to save Dennis Felton’s job.
Then again, that team had to win four times to reach the NCAA. This team doesn’t. If these Bulldogs get past Alabama, they’ll be in the Big Dance. If not, they’ll sweat out Selection Sunday.
SEC tournament prediction: Florida over Kentucky in the final.
SEC tournament spoiler: Mississippi State.
SEC tournament flop: Vanderbilt.
Georgia-Alabama winner: Bulldogs in overtime.
By Mark Bradley