A fever has swept through the Southeastern Conference. As a result, what once figured to be a fascinating conference tournament has quickly been drained of its drama.
SEC basketball is defined by #THEFEVER, a sickness caused by erratic performances. The notoriously frail and inconsistent nature of programs not named Kentucky or Florida over the past decade has created a league in which teams straddle the bubble all the way to Selection Sunday. One step forward, one step backward — that’s been the pattern for many middling SEC teams in recent years, and it’s precisely the modus operandi of a bubble team, a group which can’t make up its mind.
Just when a team seems to be on the wrong side of the bubble, it plays a great game to move to the middle or even the good side of the bubble. Just when an NCAA berth is about to be locked up, a bad loss emerges and reintroduces confusion to the picture. It is as though SEC basketball over the past several seasons has been designed to maximize bubble intrigue.
This year, in what is widely acknkowledged as an unpredictable and wild journey even by college basketball’s standards, the SEC is in the process of playing itself off the bubble — for better in the case of Vanderbilt, but for worse in the instances of Alabama, Florida and LSU.
After Florida’s failure on Tuesday against Kentucky, followed by Alabama’s brutal loss at home on Wednesday night against Arkansas, the bubble picture in the SEC is becoming clearer for the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee. Vandy, Florida, Bama, and LSU might all reside on the bubble — your mileage may vary — but if they do, none of those teams are on the middle of the bubble; they’re hugging the sides of it.
Two weeks ago, the SEC Tournament second round and quarterfinals figured to be bubble-licious, offering those tasty Championship Fortnight treats known as play-in games or play-out games relative to the bubble. As things stand on Thursday morning, those quarterfinals won’t be able to punch anyone’s ticket. Unless LSU beats Kentucky this Saturday in Rupp Arena (good luck with that one, Tigers), the Bayou Bengals, Florida, and Alabama will all have to make the SEC final if they want a real chance at an at-large spot. The SEC quarterfinals will be nothing more than a possible prelude this year. If a fringe bubble team gets through them and makes the semifinals, then we might arrive at a moment of genuine importance as far as the bubble is concerned.
If none of those bubble teams makes the semis? It’s going to be a dull SEC Tournament Saturday, and a drama-free Selection Sunday.
How profoundly ironic: In a supremely chaotic college basketball season, the SEC — a magnet for disorder and volatility this century — could very easily produce the calmest and least eventful power conference tournament.
Let’s offer a brief word on why the bubble picture has cleared up so much in the SEC, focusing on the negative side and not Vanderbilt’s welcome yet aberrational surge to the Big Dance:
In past years, THE FEVER emerged from deficient coaching. This season, Johnny Jones is still on the job at LSU (not for long if Joe Alleva is smart), but for the most part, teams are reaching 103-degree temperatures because they’ve had to start fresh.
Florida had to find a new bench boss after Billy Donovan scratched his NBA itch (and didn’t flip-flop on his decision as he did with the Orlando Magic). Michael White didn’t inherit a roster bereft of talent, but with Kasey Hill at point guard, he lacked the floor general who can create a fully effective offense. Hill’s lack of a jump shot makes it so much easier to defend the Gators on the perimeter. Coaching is not the reason why the Gators have fallen short of the NCAA tournament, and need a trip to the SEC Tournament final to re-emerge as an at-large possibility.
Alabama wisely chose to bring the Anthony Grant era to an end. The Tide wanted to build something new with Avery Johnson. “The Little General” shouldn’t be judged on this season; where Alabama stands two years from now will offer a fuller and more legitimate measurement of where the program is headed. Johnson frankly exceeded expectations through the middle of February. A late-season swoon can’t be tolerated in a third or fourth year on the job (if expectations haven’t been met in the first two or three seasons), but in year one, it’s an accepted part of a coach growing into an understanding of where — and how — his roster needs to be enhanced for the future.
The SEC’s fragility as a basketball conference was made plain last spring, when four coaching changes occurred. The quality of coaching in the league is as good as it’s ever been, but too many programs existed in transitional situations this year to create the kind of league which can regain the heyday it attained in the 1990s, when Kentucky and Arkansas became top-tier powers and both made back-to-back Final Fours.
The SEC should be better next season, but this season was supposed to be a cluttered and bewildering bubble battle all the way to Selection Sunday. The idea that the SEC might give us a drama-free conference tournament and a quiet Selection Sunday is a manifestation of how THE FEVER works in mysterious ways.