The Southeastern Conference has picked the right year to be mediocre in the middle.
With two weeks remaining in the SEC men's basketball race, just three teams have winning league records while four are 6-6. Only Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt look certain of NCAA tournament invitations, but that doesn't mean the SEC will be a three-bid league.
"I would be surprised if that were the case," Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said Monday. "There are four games [per team] to be played yet, and one of those 6-6 teams could end up at 10-6. I would be shocked if we got into a scenario like that. I don't see that happening."
Alabama, Mississippi State, LSU and Tennessee are .500 in conference contests, with the Crimson Tide and MSU's Bulldogs viewed as being in the best shape for NCAA play due to better standings in the Ratings Percentage Index. Yet Alabama had lost six of nine games before defeating Tennessee this past Saturday, and Mississippi State has dropped three straight entering tonight's home game against No. 1 Kentucky.
Senior Tide forward JaMychal Green was allowed back on the team Monday, following a three-game suspension, according to coach Anthony Grant, but junior forward Tony Mitchell will remain suspended for the rest of the season.
Alabama is 35th in the RPI and Mississippi State is 50th, while LSU is 69th and Tennessee 106th. The Tigers and Volunteers don't have any games left against ranked foes for which to make a late-season statement, so their lone chance at the NCAA may be winning the SEC tournament.
Arkansas and Ole Miss are right behind the 6-6 quartet with 5-7 league records.
"We know Kentucky, Florida and Vandy are the three teams that have separated themselves from everybody else," MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. "After that, I guess there are six or seven teams that are close. There are two weeks left, and a lot of those teams are playing each other, so there will be a lot of shuffling going on here."
Said Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin: "For us, it's just one game at a time. We just want to play games."
The best thing the SEC has going is that other major conferences are experiencing similar or worse predicaments. The ACC has three teams (Duke, North Carolina and Florida State) in the top 25 of the RPI, with Virginia next at 41st, while the Big 12 has three teams in the top 10 (Kansas, Baylor and Missouri) with Iowa State next at 38th.
California is the top-rated Pac-12 team at 31st, with Arizona next at 59th.
"I think we've got five teams that will be in, and I think if somebody crazy or one of those other teams wins our tournament, we may have six in," Kentucky's John Calipari said. "Now, people can fall flat on their face these last two weeks, and you've got no one to blame but yourself, but with what our league has done in the nonconference and with what we've done playing each other, we've got five teams in.
"Where I hope this league goes is that we're a seven- or eight-bid league. Adding the teams that we're adding, Texas A&M and Missouri, I think we start saying that we're going after eight or nine bids."
ESPN's Joe Lunardi on Monday reflected Calipari's sentiments with five SEC teams projected in his 68-team bracket. Lunardi has Kentucky as a 1 seed, Florida a 4 seed, Vandy a 7 seed, Mississippi State a 9 seed and Alabama a 10 seed.
Those SEC teams on the outside will keep trying, and there is the fourth bye in the league tournament that remains up for grabs.
"We're kind of beating up on each other and holding serve at home," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said, "and we're about to see how this thing finishes out."
Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins was the obvious choice for SEC player of the week Monday after the 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior averaged 27 points in wins at Ole Miss and Georgia. Jenkins made 10 of his 12 3-point attempts (83.3 percent) in the triumphs.
"He needs the smallest crack in the clouds to make the sun shine," Georgia coach Mark Fox said.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.