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Post SEC hoops: Florida and the seven dwarves?

Wednesday February 14, 2007

Bracketology wears me out.

I’ll come right out and admit that. I just don’t get the point of calling the #7 seed in the Midwest Regional in February. Many of us, myself included, were sure that Georgia was heading for a postseason of some kind after beating Alabama in early February 2006. Then the rest of the season happened.

More than that, I just get tired of the politicking that goes on around the bubble and projecting which teams will be in and out. What I really dislike about it is the mindset it forces on many of us. We get the idea in our heads that 9-7 or even 8-8 is the goal, and we do the RPI calculus to show how that record distinguishes us from the truckload of other ordinary teams who also flirted with .500 in their conferences. We work backwards from that 9-7 mark to identify those nine wins and hope that we don’t drop one and have to win at Ole Miss to make up the difference. To me, it’s like focusing on becoming bowl-eligible. Why not just play the games and win?

This mindset is all over the SEC this year. With an undefeated Florida well out ahead of a slew of teams all with at least four conference losses, the label “Florida and the Seven Dwarves” is unfortunately pretty apt. That label comes from a very interesting piece today in the Chattanooga Times Free Press by Darren Epps that talks about the strength of the SEC with Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com. Palm attempts to deliver a dose of reality to the SEC: there aren’t very many impressive teams in the SEC once you get past Florida. He projects just five SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament.

Palm correctly points out that the strength of the SEC isn’t so much a lot of good teams as it is the lack of really bad teams. Other than South Carolina, most SEC teams can hold their own. That’s just good enough to get you in the discussion though. From there, you’re hoping that your good features outshine your warts. You’re left with weak and pathetic arguments like Randolph Morris’s "the way we played should say something about our team." Close is good enough in horseshoes, hand grenades, and Kentucky games against Top 25 teams.

Palm is brutally honest to the SEC West. "I see six NIT-quality teams in the West," he said. The winner of the SEC West might have an 8-8 conference record. Preseason favorite and last year’s great story LSU is bringing up the rear. That’s not parity to be celebrated; it’s just not good basketball. They’re not bad – any of them – but a game or two separating first and last place isn’t a sign of exceptional quality.

The East is a bit better, but they have their own problems. Tennessee might be the second-best team in the league, but they stumbled enough early in the season to be just around .500 in conference at this point, and they haven’t done much yet on the road. Kentucky looks to be just strong enough to merit a postseason bid, but they don’t seem likely to hang around long. Vanderbilt had a tremendous run against ranked teams but has been inconsistent and found it hard to gain traction. Georgia is dangerous but is vulnerable to poor shooting and has lost a key starter.

I’m by no means saying that these SEC teams, especially Georgia, should be left out. Teams don’t have to be flawless to get postseason bids, and they’re competing with other teams with their own pluses and minuses. All conferences will be campaigning to get as many bids as possible, and most have teams in the same position as the SEC’s "dwarves" . The fifth-place team in the ACC is just 5-5 right now. There are so many teams in this boat that selection committee chairman Gary Walters said, "conference tournaments could take on increasing significance this year in helping us to separate teams."

We’re all happy with the progress that the Georgia team has shown this year, and it would be gratifying for the all of the sacrifice and work put in over the past three years to be rewarded. The best way they can get there is to forget about aiming for 8 or 9 wins and have the kind of finish to the season that separates themselves from the rest of the SEC pack that’s drifting towards room temperature. If they do end up around that 8-8 or 9-7 mark, they’re putting an awful lot of pressure on themselves for the conference tournament, doing a lot of scoreboard-watching, and leaving their fate in the hands of the selection committee. Do better and the only bracketology they’ll have to worry about is their seeding.

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