By the Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Southeastern Conference is bracing for potential Marginal Madness this March.
With only one team ranked in the Top 25, the No. 5 Florida Gators, the SEC could have three or fewer teams in the NCAA tournament for only the second time in 23 years even if there are others holding out hope.
There are solid cases at Missouri and Mississippi, uncertainty at Kentucky and glimmers of hope at Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee but nobody beyond the Gators is considered a lock.
“The way the league is now is fun,” Volunteers guard Jordan McRae said. “Last year with Kentucky, you knew they were going to be there at the end. Now it’s like LSU could be in the championship or win the championship. Florida could lose in the first round. Missouri could win. Anybody’s in the game right now. It’s fun like that.”
Apparently one man’s definition of fun is another man’s nerve-racking.
The SEC has as many teams with power ratings of 200 or worse (three) as in the Top 50, and even that’s shaky territory.
Jerry Palm’s collegerpi.com rates Florida fourth, Missouri 38th, Kentucky 45th and Ole Miss 52nd.
Barring a surprise SEC tournament champion, two bracket watchers have Florida, Mississippi and Missouri making the NCAA field — and seven leagues receiving more invitations.
“I would be more surprised if they ended up with four than if they ended up with two,” said Palm, who runs a bracket for CBSSports.com.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi agrees that it’s an uphill climb beyond those three teams.
“Their number is not likely to start going back up in terms of numbers of team unless somebody truly unexpected wins the conference tournament,” Lunardi said.
It could be a near replay of 2009 when the SEC sent only three teams to the tournament for the first time in 19 years. LSU managed the lone win of the three teams, though there wasn’t a potential No. 1 seed like Florida in the mix. It’s the only time in the past 23 years the league hasn’t had at least one team make it to the regional semifinals.
The biggest question mark involves the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats, whose tournament stock was uncertain even before losing shot-blocking freshman Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury.
Tennessee routed Kentucky 88-58 in the first game without the star freshman.
“Kentucky probably has the best profile of the (SEC) teams I don’t have in the bracket, but without Noel it’s hard to imagine they’re going to be able to sustain anything,” Palm said. “Probably they’re going to fall back. Alabama and Tennessee are probably the two teams with the best chance to give the league more than three, but I haven’t seen anything from either of those teams to make me optimistic.”
Kentucky guard Jarrod Polson knows there’s little margin for error.
“I think it’s in the back of our minds that if we want to make the tournament we have to win all the games or maybe just lose one more,” Polson said. “At this time of the year, this is when we need to get hot anyway so we can just look at these games as tournament games.”
In some ways, the apparent downturn isn’t all that surprising for the SEC, which had four teams combine for a 10-3 NCAA tournament mark last season not counting new addition Missouri, upset by Norfolk State in the first round.
The league had 12 players selected in the NBA draft — that number rises to 15 counting newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M — including the top three picks and eight first-rounders. Kentucky and Vanderbilt had to replace all five starters and Missouri only had one back in star point guard Phil Pressey.
Plus, there are seven coaches either in their first or second season with their current team.
“There was a lot of guys in this league a year ago that were really, really great college players and a lot of them are playing in the NBA,” said Gators coach Billy Donovan whose team has won eight SEC games by 22-plus points. “Now, you’ve got some new players coming in, stepping in for those guys. You have some new coaches implementing new styles of play.”
But Donovan said he thinks Florida and the rest of the SEC are playing much better in January and February than November. Both Palm and Lunardi cite weak nonconference performances or schedules as big strikes against the league.
The SEC is 4-13 against teams from the Big East and won two of six meetings with the Big Ten.
But several teams have been on recent surges. Alabama has won nine of 11, Arkansas four of five and Tennessee three straight. Missouri got its first road win at Mississippi State before losing to the Razorbacks in Fayetteville.
Ole Miss was the league’s biggest surprise early in the season but lost two straight games before an overtime win over Georgia.
“Florida’s been the one constant that from the beginning until now, they have been the best team in the league and they have played as such,” Rebels coach Andy Kennedy said. “Everybody goes through transitions. Tennessee did not start out great and are playing great basketball now. Kentucky, unfortunately with the loss of Nerlens Noel … now have to kind of reinvent themselves down the stretch.
“Ourselves with injuries and the things that happened, you just try to deal with it as best you can and understand it’s a five-month season and there’s going to be highs and there’s going to be lows. And at the end of the day, you hope the numbers make sense.”
The SEC hopes they add up to at least three.