Wiedmer: SEC's top teams need to curb losses

Wiedmer: SEC's top teams need to curb losses

February 10th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

Barring a nationwide flu quarantine, the main first round of the NCAA Tournament begins five weeks from today. Judging from the current state of the Southeastern Conference it's difficult to see more than five teams -- Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt -- making the 68-team field.

If a sixth SEC program does get in, it will almost assuredly be Georgia, which undoubtedly hurt itself with Tuesday's home loss to Xavier, but still has enough difficult games left -- road trips to Tennessee, Florida and Alabama and a home date with Vanderbilt -- to impress the selection committee.

Or as Bulldog boss Mark Fox said after the Xavier defeat, "Just because all of our losses have come against good teams, it doesn't mean we can't beat a good team. Kentucky's a good team. Arkansas's a good team."

OK, perhaps he should have stopped with Kentucky.

But that's the perverse beauty of a league schedule that moved the vast majority of its marquee match-ups to February, presumably to help both ESPN and CBS with their ratings.

Because of that scheduling, there is lots of time left for Fox's Dawgs, and Kevin Stallings' Commodores and maybe even Rick Stansbury's dysfunctional Mississippi State Bulldogs to plead their cases.

Well, in the case of State, the Bullies would probably need to win the SEC tourney to reach the NCAA, but they've done it before and Stansbury actually has the talent to do it again if problem child Renardo Sidney ever realizes he has the ability to become the league's best player.

As for the other contenders, Alabama may have entered the week with the league's worst RPI among NCAA contenders with a 97, but the Crimson Tide has the league's top conference record (7-1) heading into tonight's game at Vanderbilt, as well as no games remaining with State, whom they swept.

Given that scenario, it's highly possible that Bama will not only win the much-maligned SEC West, but also claim the overall title if it can limit its league losses to three total.

If the Tide slips just a bit, SEC East leader Florida should win the overall. For the first time since their back-to-back national championship seasons in 2006 and 2007, the Gators have defeated ranked opponents in consecutive games, beating both Vanderbilt and Kentucky last week in Gainesville.

Another reason to be impressed with Billy Donovan's bunch? After struggling 1-5 a year ago against Vandy, UK and UT, the Gators stand 3-0 against that same trio this season heading into Saturday night's visit from Tennessee.

Like all of Donovan's best squads, this one has no obvious weakness and many strengths. If they stay healthy and happy, the Gators could make a deep NCAA run.

Vanderbilt looked similarly impressive heading into the conference race, but the Commodores have struggled with turnovers -- averaging 2.2 more than their opponents in league play -- and are next to last in scoring defense (72.2 ppg) in SEC action. Vandy has plenty of chances left to prove itself, and most are at home against Bama tonight , Kentucky (Saturday), Tennessee (Feb. 22) and Florida (March 5).

But the Commodores probably need to finish at least 9-7 in league play (they are currently 4-4) to lock down a bid.

All of which leaves us with UK and UT, which meet again at high noon on March 6 on CBS inside the Vols' Thompson-Boling Arena. If Tuesday's 73-61 Wildcat win inside Rupp Arena taught us anything it's that we still know surprisingly little about the Big Orange.

With a schedule ranked tops nationally, UT shouldn't have any trouble making the field. But at some point they need to begin to run the majority of the offense through Tobias Harris instead of Scotty Hopson, need to play Josh Bone over Skylar McBee because of his defensive prowess and press more, given their superior depth and low field goal percentage (42 percent) in league games.

Finally, there's Kentucky, with the league's best RPI (12th) and most prolific freshmen -- rookies Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb account for 64 percent of the 'Cats scoring.

With exactly one SEC road win over South Carolina, John Calipari's Kiddie Cats could finish as low as fourth in the SEC East. But they could also catch fire and wind up seeded as high as third in an NCAA regional.

"It's that time of year," said Cal after the UT game. "Refuse to lose. Figure out a way. Refuse to lose."

Especially if you're Georgia or Vanderbilt, lest the NCAA quarantine your NCAA bid.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.