Florida (19-3, 9-1)
Kentucky (17-6, 8-2)
Ole Miss (18-5, 7-3)
Missouri (17-6, 6-4)
ON THE BUBBLE
Alabama (15-8, 7-3)
Texas A&M (14-9, 4-6)
Arkansas (14-9, 5-5)
Tennessee (12-10, 4-6)
LSU (13-8, 4-6)
Georgia (12-11, 6-4)
Vanderbilt (9-13, 3-7)
Auburn (9-14, 3-7)
South Carolina (12-11, 2-8)
Mississippi State (7-15, 2-8)
For the past several seasons, Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings has talked to his players about the dangers of looking ahead to the NCAA tournament.
That topic hasn't come up this winter. After averaging 22 wins the past nine seasons, Stallings has a youthful squad that is 9-13 overall and 3-7 in Southeastern Conference play with eight games remaining in the regular season.
"There are different motivations and different approaches, and it's been quite different for us," Stallings said Monday. "Our other teams might have been thinking about whether they were trying to stay in the conference race or trying to stay as far ahead as you could in the RPI or anything like that. It's much different this year, and you have to approach it much differently.
"At the same time, our goal is still to be the best team we can be at the end of the season, and that only happens if you put in good work every day."
Stallings isn't lacking for company, as a staggering 10 SEC teams would be on the outside looking in if the NCAA tournament selection committee announced its 68-team field today. Only No. 7 Florida, No. 25 Kentucky, Missouri and Ole Miss would be safely in the field, while Alabama is the only league member right now that has any chance of being on the proverbial bubble.
Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Auburn and Mississippi State have not been in the NCAA or NIT picture all winter, while Georgia recently jumped off that list. Mark Fox's Bulldogs were 7-11 and 1-4 in conference play before reeling off five consecutive victories entering tonight's game against visiting Alabama.
The five-game win streak within SEC play is Georgia's first since 2001, but the Bulldogs are just 110th in the Rating Percentage Index rankings. Fox maintains that his message of focusing only on the next game has not changed.
"That's all these young guys can handle," he said. "We can't manage any bigger picture than that."
Florida, Kentucky and Missouri are no strangers to NCAA play, but Ole Miss has the longest drought of any conference member. The Rebels last made the tournament in 2002, but Andy Kennedy's current Rebels shot out of the gate with six straight SEC wins and a 17-2 overall mark.
Ole Miss since has lost three of four games, when its schedule stiffened with dates against Kentucky, Florida and Missouri.
"Our focus is always to remain the same, and that's trying to stay in the moment," Kennedy said. "Don't think too big picture and try to concentrate on the next opportunity. That other stuff doesn't affect us one way or the other, so my concern is trying to get us better and getting ready for this stretch as we're closing down on the final eight games in league play."
Said Stallings: "Motivating your team in creative, sensible ways is always a challenge, especially when you get into February. If you have a good team, you want them to stay on edge and stay ready. If you have a team that's not as good, you want them to keep hope. I think they're equally as challenging."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...