If the NCAA pairings were set at noon today, meaning Saturday, Georgia wouldn’t make the field of 68. (Eamonn Brennan’s ESPN Bubble Watch still doesn’t include the Bulldogs, though he says he’s “keeping an eye” on them.) But if the Bulldogs beat Kentucky this afternoon, they’d have a fighting chance to make the NCAA tournament even if they lose to Texas A&M or LSU in Sunday’s SEC final.
(Department of Duh: If they win the SEC, they’re in.)
Department of What Will Sound Like Doubletalk: The best thing Georgia has going for it is three victories over South Carolina; that’s also the worst thing Georgia has going for it. The Bulldogs might well have knocked the Gamecocks from the Big Dance. Georgia now ranks above South Carolina — 60 to 62 — in RPI, which is good. Less good is that Georgia can no longer count a single victory over a team in the RPI’s top 50, and that’s no small thing to the committee.
This all changes if Georgia wins today, and it might. The Bulldogs are playing better than they have all season, and they have more reason to win than Kentucky, which is playing mostly for seeding. To the Big Blue, there’s only one tournament that registers, and it ain’t the SEC. Yes, the Wildcats beat Georgia by 34 points in Rupp Arena last month and have the better players, but weird things happen in league tournaments.
Example: South Carolina’s best player had the ball in a tie game Friday and was positioning himself to take the final shot. The worst thing the Gamecocks could reasonably have expected was to go to overtime. But Sindarius Thornwell was divested of possession by J.J. Frazier and then, thinking South Carolina was behind, fouled him. (Call that a cardinal Sindarius.) Frazier’s free throw with 2.1 seconds remaining won the game.
And look where South Carolina, 24-8, is now: Still in Joe Lunardi’s ESPN bracket, but only as one of the “last four in.” Jerry Palm’s CBS Sports bracket dropped the Gamecocks and didn’t even list them among the “first four out.” If you go by Palm’s projection, the SEC would send only two teams to the NCAA tournament, which is another hurdle for Georgia.
South Carolina might have played its way out of the Dance. Vanderbilt might have, too. Florida and Alabama are almost certainly out. LSU has no shot unless it wins its next two games. Even with its three wins over the Gamecocks, Georgia was only 4-4 against those five teams. Generally speaking, the committee doesn’t worry overmuch about allocating a certain number of spots to a given conference: It does what it says is its mission — to find the 36 best at-large teams.
Meaning: There won’t be a surge of emotion to elevate Georgia just because the rest of the league — Kentucky and A&M to the contrary — has jumped the rails, and just reaching the semis won’t avail the Bulldogs much if at all. But beating Kentucky would give them a healthy RPI bounce, and that could be the difference between NCAA and NIT.
I mentioned earlier in the week that I cannot recall a not-even-on-the-bubble team playing its way into the NCAA by surging in a conference tournament without winning the thing. If it beats Kentucky, Georgia might become that team.