SEC Tournament Begins With Tense Start For Bubble Teams

HOOVER, Ala. — The Southeastern Conference’s slogan “It just means more” is displayed prominently at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, plastered in huge block letters just beyond the outfield wall. Those words have seldom rung truer than Tuesday at the SEC Tournament.

The event’s opening day features four single-elimination games that feed into the double elimination portion of the tournament. And because the conference this year is as deep as its ever been, all four games featured a team on the NCAA Tournament bubble. That dynamic made for a pressure-packed opening day of the SEC Tournament.

In many respects, all 12 teams that qualified for the SEC Tournament have regional-caliber resumes. All 12 teams came to Hoover with top-45 RPIs, all 12 teams have more than a dozen wins against top-50 RPI opponents and all 12 teams rank in the top 35 in strength of schedule.

But basic math conspires against the bottom half of the conference. Some teams were bound to finish conference play with losing records, which has in the past typically given pause to the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Teams have gotten in the NCAA Tournament with losing conference records but finishing more than a couple games under .500 in conference play (including conference tournament games) figures to make for an anxious Memorial Day Weekend.

And so, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas A&M and, to a lesser extent, Louisiana State all came to Hoover with something to prove. LSU and Texas A&M got the wins they needed Tuesday to shore up their resumes and move on in the tournament. LSU (34-23), which beat Mississippi State to improve to 16-15 in SEC games and raised its RPI to 41, can feel secure. A&M (37-19), which beat Vanderbilt and is now 14-17 in conference games and ranks 17 in RPI, probably still needs one more win to lift off the bubble.

Kentucky and Missouri, however, fell short Tuesday. Kentucky (34-22), which lost to Auburn and now stands at 13-18 in SEC games and ranks 25 in RPI, will have a nervous week of bubble watching. Missouri (34-22), which lost to South Carolina to fall to 12-19 in conference games and saw its RPI fall to 44, will miss regionals.

Kentucky coach Nick Mingione made his team’s case following the loss, noting that the Wildcats are 5-7 against the top-five RPI teams and have wins against the champions of the SEC (Florida), American Athletic Conference (Houston) and Southland Conference (Sam Houston State), among many other positive metrics.

“I know the committee’s got a tough job, but I feel like we’ve got a lot of key victories,” he said. “We’ve done a lot. I’m sure the committee will do all their research. Do I wish we would have won the game today? Yes. Was it an important game? Yes. Would it have helped us? Yes. But I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

Texas A&M coach Rob Childress admitted he is biased in the situation, but said he thought his team had done enough to assure itself of a regionals bid before coming to Hoover.

“I’m the ultimate maroon spin doctor,” he said. “I felt like we were in the (NCAA Tournament) the whole time. When you look at our total body of work over the course of the season, it’s hard to deny a top-20 RPI team with the No. 15 strength of schedule. I thought we were in a pretty good place before that, but, of course, I wear maroon.”

The margins are slim for all these teams. Auburn, after its win against Kentucky, is 16-15 in SEC games but with an RPI of 12, can now set its sights on hosting a regional. If a couple games end differently over the last 10 weeks, Kentucky or Texas A&M could be in that position.

Instead, they are left to wonder how the selection committee will evaluate a banner year in the SEC. Conference record and standings have traditionally been one of the key data points the committee uses when selecting at-large bids. North Carolina was famously left out of the field in 2016 despite ranking in the top 20 in RPI because it went 13-17 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and finished in 11th place, missing the conference tournament.

Is Kentucky headed for the same fate? Nothing will be known for sure until Monday when the field is revealed. In the Wildcats’ favor this year is what is currently a soft bubble. The ACC and Pac-12 Conference are down and few mid-major teams have truly asserted themselves. Barring several significant upsets in conference tournaments – as was the case last year – Kentucky will likely be fighting for a bid against teams with RPIs of about 50 that have half as many top-50 or top-100 RPI wins.

But the Wildcats’ SEC record represents a significant flaw in its resume. Most of its games were played against conference competition and Kentucky won only about 42 percent of them.

“There’s been a lot of talk about, ‘Ok, you got 13 wins in the league,’” Mingione said. “I don’t believe anyone in our league should be punished for how good it is. I think our RPI speaks for itself and then our wins that we’ve been able to accomplish speak for itself.”

Tuesday meant more at the SEC Tournament, but we’ll have to wait five days to find out just how much more.

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