Does The SEC Have An NCAA Tournament Bubble Dilemma Or A Record-Breaking Bonanza?


Image credit: Ethan Petry (Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

The SEC regular season ended Saturday with a wild finish. When the dust settled, five teams were tied in the standings at 13-17 in conference play.

Those five teams – Alabama, Florida, LSU, South Carolina and Vanderbilt – represent a difficult dilemma for the NCAA Tournament selection committee. They finished in a five-way tie for seventh place in the SEC standings and all currently reside on the NCAA Tournament bubble with a week to go. Can the selection committee take the entire quintet, which would give the SEC an unprecedented 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament, or is one destined to be left out?

It’s important to acknowledge before we go any deeper into this analysis that their NCAA Tournament resumes are not done. All five will play single-elimination games Tuesday at the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala. Further, every team of the quintet but LSU (which takes on Georgia) will play each other Tuesday. Those games will impact RPI and every other criterion the selection committee uses when building the tournament field.

So, how will the selection committee take on the task of ordering the quintet and evaluating them in the bubble discussion?

There are two clear historical precedents at play:

  1. In the last 10 seasons (since the SEC expanded to 14 teams), every SEC team that has won at least 13 regular-season conference games and had an RPI of less than 30 has made the NCAA Tournament.
  2. No conference has ever received more than 10 NCAA Tournament bids.

The first precedent is good news for the quintet. They all woke up Sunday with a very solid chance of hitting that RPI benchmark, as all rank in the top 30 (LSU is No. 30). The second precedent is bad news, as it would indicate that one of those teams must be cut.

The SEC had to break the five-way tie for purposes of seeding its conference tournament and ended up with the order of Alabama, Vanderbilt, Florida, South Carolina and LSU. But the selection committee will not default to that order when ranking the teams itself (in no small part because the games this week still matter).

What is the selection committee looking at? A variety of metrics and results, assembled here.

TeamRecordRPIKPISOSNC SOSQuad 1Quad 2Quad 3Quad 4
South Carolina33-21192281309-186-14-114-1

They also will get the input of the regional advisory committee, which is meant to serve as their eye test. A coach from each conference (the SEC’s is Auburn’s Butch Thompson) and a member of the conference office provide analysis to a member of the selection committee, who then takes it to the committee at large. The conference administrator’s role is to provide further context into scheduling and other details. The coach is meant to give the on-field view of each of the teams in the mix.

The RAC’s exact impact on the selection process is difficult to discern. Their rankings are never made public and there’s no way to predict them. It’s a lot easier to look at hard data, but former selection committee chairmen are adamant that the RACs do play an important role. In this case, it’s possible that how the RAC lines up the SEC teams could be a crucial data point.

But this doesn’t have to be an either-or comparison. The selection committee could take 11 SEC teams. The committee is specifically not supposed to put a cap on the number of bids or hosts or top-eight seeds a conference receives. It’s true that no conference has ever gotten more than 10 bids, but that record is destined to be felled sooner or later as conference consolidation continues next year and the Big Ten has 17 baseball-playing members, the ACC and SEC have 16 and the Big 12 has 14.

There are two very interesting and possibly relevant former cases of conferences getting cut off at 10 bids. In 2016, the ACC got 10 bids. North Carolina, which went 34-21, 13-17 and finished 11th in the conference standings was left out of the NCAA Tournament, despite an RPI of 19. The decision was controversial – a top-20 RPI team had never been left out of the tournament – but justified because the Tar Heels did not make the ACC Tournament. The conference expanded its tournament field to 12 teams the very next year.

In 2018, the SEC got 10 bids. Kentucky, which was 34-22, 13-17 and finished 10th in the conference standings, was left out. It had an RPI of 30 and went 0-1 in the SEC Tournament, part of a poor stretch that saw it lose five of its final six games. In that case, Kentucky’s SEC record was explicitly noted by the committee as its downfall.

In 2016, the ACC and UNC gave the selection committee an easy justification for leaving out the Tar Heels. If they couldn’t make their own conference tournament, what business did they have in the NCAA Tournament? That’s not the case this year. The Kentucky example, however, is more relevant and perhaps this year will unfold in the same manner.

But every season is unique, and every selection committee is unique. The SEC’s position at the top of the sport has only consolidated in the last six years. Today, five of the top six teams in RPI are in the SEC and 13 of the conference’s 14 members are in the top 45. A heavy lean toward RPI, an approach embraced by the selection committee a year ago, would suggest all 11 SEC teams get in. Even the changes in selection process the committee made after last season further push the SEC toward 11 bids. KPI, the metric the committee added to the process, rates the SEC even better than RPI, with 13 of 14 SEC teams ranking in the top 37 and 11 in the top 23.

Any metric the selection committee looks at will favor the SEC teams. The committee will ultimately have to come to terms with either embracing their metrics or choosing teams that rate worse in an effort to provide more conference diversity in the tournament field.

No matter what they do, they’re going to make some people unhappy. But throwing out their own metrics – especially one they just added to the process – seems a bit unlikely.

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