How many games must the Georgia men’s basketball team win this week to play in the NCAA tournament next week?
That question dominates discussions about the team entering the SEC tournament at the Georgia Dome.
Must the Bulldogs beat Auburn, their opponent at 1 p.m. Thursday, to reach the big dance? Must they also beat Alabama, which will face the Georgia-Auburn winner Friday? Or might the Dogs possibly slip into the NCAA tournament even without a win at the Dome because of a weak bubble field?
Similar questions follow two other teams into the SEC tournament — Alabama, which most “bracketologists” argue is in a worse position on the bubble than Georgia, and Tennessee, which the same experts contend is in a better position than Georgia.
Three other teams enter the SEC tournament with no doubt they’ll get NCAA bids Sunday evening — Florida, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, all in the top 25 of the RPI.
At issue is how many more teams the SEC will send to the NCAA tourney.
“We should be getting six teams in,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Now, people have got to advance here in this [SEC] tournament. They don’t have to go to the finals and all that, but you’ve got to advance a little bit. You’ve got to help your cause. I think that will be a big part of how this all plays out.”
Georgia (20-10, 9-7) would hurt its cause, perhaps decisively, if it lost to Auburn (11-19, 4-12) in the SEC tournament opener.
Auburn extended the Bulldogs to overtime before losing 81-72 on Feb. 5 in Athens and enters the tournament on a two-game winning streak. But the Tigers have an ugly RPI of 254.
“Let’s face it, if Georgia loses to Auburn on a neutral court, I think their case pretty much is over,” ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi said Wednesday.
Auburn coach Tony Barbee took note of the Bulldogs’ situation, saying: “You read some of the stuff [about] the NCAA tournament and what’s at stake and all that, and they have got to do some things here to put themselves firmly in the field. So they have got a lot at stake to play for.”
If Georgia gets past Auburn, Friday’s quarterfinal against Alabama also would have NCAA ramifications. Although the RPI — a computerized measure that evaluates teams’ relative strength — holds Georgia (39) in much higher regard than Alabama (83), the Bulldogs lost in Tuscaloosa last week and might need to counter that defeat by winning a rematch.
“I don’t think six [SEC teams] can get in,” Lunardi said, “because I think there is a fork in the road when and if Georgia plays Alabama.”
Lunardi called a potential Georgia-Alabama SEC quarterfinal an “elimination game” for an NCAA tournament at-large bid.
Tennessee’s place on the bubble also is interesting as it heads into its SEC tournament opener against Arkansas at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. The Vols (18-13, 8-8) lost six of their final nine regular-season games and finished fifth in the SEC East (behind Georgia), but they have eight wins over teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI.
“I don’t really know,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said when asked if the Vols need more wins to reach the NCAA tournament. “I know the math says we’re in pretty good shape because of our strength of schedule [No. 2 nationally], RPI  and the number of wins we have over top-50 and top-100 RPI teams. The more you win, the better position you put yourself in, so we’re going in [to the SEC tournament] believing we need to win to improve our chances.”
Georgia coach Mark Fox has taken a similar posture, maintaining that the Bulldogs’ season-long “body of work” merits a spot in the 68-team field, but adding on his weekly radio show: “By no means are we going into this [SEC] tournament with the feeling that we are in a comfortable position.”
Georgia’s players seem to be trying to tune out the widespread chatter about next week’s tournament.
“People talk about it, but we just go to work,” Jeremy Price said. “People talk about the RPI and whatever, but we want to play the games and try to get some tough wins and move on.”
“We got to win probably one or two games,” Chris Barnes said, “but we’re not really focusing on the NCAA tournament right now. That’s something in the back of our minds, but we’re focusing on playing Auburn.”
“Right now the only thing we can control is playing this game at 1 o’clock [Thursday],” Trey Thompkins said. “Hopefully there is a future for us, but we’ll take care of what we can take care of.”