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SEC BUBBLES ON THE VERGE OF POPPING
February 17, 2009

SCS.comSelection Sunday is just under a month away, and it is now or never for teams on the bubble to put their best foot forward. The bubble picture however, is not pretty for the SEC. In what has been a more than forgettable season down south has SEC fans worrying that only two or three teams may find themselves with an invitation to the big dance. Obviously the conference tournament champion will be extended an invite, but should Louisiana State or Tennessee prevail, the SEC will not be well represented. Here is a look at the conferenceís postseason hopefuls:

Louisiana State

One of the more surprising teams in the country currently leads the SEC and appears to be the conferenceís most distinguished team this season. LSU currently sits at 21-4 with a 9-1 mark in conference play. In any other year, this kind of record in the SEC would have the Tigers playing for a number one seed. However, with a RPI in the high 30ís and the SEC as weak as ever, LSU seems to be merely playing for a protected seed. To their credit, the worst loss on the schedule is to conference rival Alabama, but even that is not a terrible loss as the Tide is sitting at 13-11. However, their biggest non-conference win came against Washington State which is not a good thing for Tiger fans. Needless to say, LSU needs to continue its strong play in the SEC.

With six games remaining, LSU probably can afford to go 3-3 and be safe for the dance. But they probably do not want to go 2-4 followed by an early entry in the conference tournament. That recipe will surely have LSU fans sweating out the selection process. However, that is unlikely. The Tigers have been solid all season with a steady offensive game, but very tenacious defensively all season. Forecast: Expect the Tigers to go 4-2 in the stretch run and at least pick up two more in the conference tournament to finish with 27 wins and a pretty decent seed.

South Carolina

Another surprise out of the SEC this season comes in the way of the Gamecocks. South Carolina finds itself 7-3 in the SEC and 18-5 overall, with a similar RPI to that of Louisiana Stateís. The only questionable loss on the schedule is to the College of Charleston, but even that does not look too bad after Charleston took down Davidson. The loss to Tennessee will only be bad if the Gamecocks canít avenge that loss in early March, two losses to a fellow bubble team surely hurts. Similar to LSU, South Carolina did pretty much nothing out of conference as their best win came against a fading Baylor squad. The upcoming games against Tennessee and Kentucky are the closest semblances to potential signature victories remaining on South Carolinaís schedule.

South Carolinaís conference record is also a little bit misleading, five of their seven conference wins have come against SEC opponents with sub .500 conference records. Granted, you can only play the teams on your schedule, but at some point wins need to come against your better opponents. Forecast: Right now, in my opinion South Carolina is in the tournament. However, I canít see South Carolina finishing better than .500 down the stretch and 2-4 seems more likely. That getís them to 20 wins, which will not be enough. This is a team that probably needs to at least make the conference finals should it finish the regular season with less than 22 wins. More than likely, their dance shoes will be left in the closet.

Kentucky

A while back I wrote about how poorly Kentucky was playing, then I ate a serving of crow and pronounced the Wildcats built for a good tournament run. Honestly, they are probably somewhere in the middle. They are 18-7 with a 7-3 conference record which is fine, even for the SEC, however their high 50ís RPI is very un-Kentucky like. An early loss to VMI and a midseason three game losing streak has the Cats squarely on the bubble. Ashley Judd can look on the bright side though; no team on the bubble has a better one-two punch than Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson. Although Pattersonís health is a concern, however the RPI is on the rise.

Looking ahead, Kentucky very well could go 5-1 and may need to do just that. With games against Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina, and LSU, there are plenty of chances to raise the RPI and get some pretty decent wins. Outside of the SEC, Kentucky has a pair of decent wins against Kansas State and West Virginia. Forecast: Kentucky has a tough schedule down the stretch, but I expect them to go 5-1, 4-2 at worst. Sweeping Tennessee and winning its lone regular season battle with LSU could go a long way to punching Kentuckyís ticket. Expect Kentucky to notch 25 wins by the end of the SEC Tournament and be hovering around a 10 seed, a dangerous 10 seed though.

Tennessee

Playing one of the toughest schedule in the country can go one of two ways for bubble teams. It can push a team into the tournament or it will lead to simply too many losses for a team to warrant a bid. Outside of the SEC, the Vols notched a wins over Georgetown, Siena and Marquette. As of now, Tennessee is pretty much in thanks to their schedule as long as they do not fall apart down the stretch. The remaining teams on their schedule all have above .500 records and several still have postseason aspirations.

The preseason SEC favorites needs to play .500 ball down the stretch, should they stumble worse than that, then their situation could get sticky. If I had to put a number on the Vols to reach the tournament it was be 21, perhaps 22. Playing 20 games against potential tournament teams and still cracking the 20 win barrier has to count for something. Forecast: Thanks to a top 20 RPI, the Vols are in good shape, but not yet a lock. Look for them to go 4-2 down the stretch. However it will not be easy as they are a final opportunity for a signature regular season win for several of their remaining opponents. If they do this and get a win or two in the conference tournament, they surely will be dancing.

Florida

Billy Donovanís squad is in the same situation as much of its conference foes. Florida also continues the trend of a SEC team not doing much out of conference. The Washington win is solid, but after the Huskies, their best win is against North Carolina State. Needless to say, sitting at 19-6 overall and 6-4 in the SEC, the Gators need to finish strong. Their RPI is in the mid 40ís and that will definitely rise with a strong conclusion to the regular season. Most importantly though, when it is all said and done, their battles with LSU, Tennessee, and Kentucky will be what determines their fate.

If Florida can grab two of them and win the rest of their contests they should be in good shape. However anything less than 5-1 will put Florida in a tough spot, 3-3 could be backbreaking. Nick Calathes is the key to Florida, especially since he has the ability to put the team on his shoulders for a few games. Forecast: Florida has the talent to run the table, but I think 4-2 is more reasonable. However, I think they will get two of the big games, while suffering a setback at Mississippi State. The loss to MSU could really hurt the Gators. Basically, the Gators just need to win and could do themselves a favor by reaching the SEC Championship.

The Best of the Rest

There are several others teams in the SEC like Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss, and Alabama that a first glance look like they are hanging on by a thread. However, the further you dig, the quicker that thread breaks. Vanderbilt, Alabama and Ole Miss almost certainly need to win the SEC Tournament to have any chance of playing on March 19 or 20. Despite RPIs in the 80ís and 90ís, it will be tough to ignore an 11 or 12 win SEC team, therefore Auburn and Mississippi State still have to be considered possibilities. Forecast: The Bulldog schedule features South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and Auburn, so the chances are there to get some quality wins. Auburn on the other hand has an equally tough schedule as they face Mississippi State and Louisiana State twice. As mentioned before Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Alabama need to win the conference tournament. If Mississippi State and Auburn are successful down the stretch they will be considered for an at large berth, however neither team is consistent enough. Finding their way to 24 wins minimum is a must for both teams.

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