Selection Sunday is less than one month away, and college basketball coaches across the country are atop the stump campaigning for their leagues to have the most representatives in the NCAA Tournament.
Like most of his Southeastern Conference colleagues, Georgia coach Jim Harrick said that seven, possibly eight, SEC teams are worthy of lacing up the dancing shoes come tourney time.
"If we had to start today, I really think seven teams deserve to be in out of the Southeastern Conference," said Harrick, whose Bulldogs (13-11, 6-5 SEC) play host to Vanderbilt tonight at 7:30.
If the season ended today, five SEC teams - Kentucky (15-7, 8-2), Tennessee (18-6, 5-5), Alabama (18-5, 7-4), Florida (17-5, 7-4) and Mississippi (19-4, 7-3) - would be locks for the 65-team field.
Georgia leads a six-team SEC pack whose hopes will be made or broken during the season's stretch run. The Bulldogs, South Carolina (13-8, 5-5) and Arkansas (14-8, 5-5) are the conference's "bubble" teams, and Vanderbilt (15-8, 4-6), Auburn (14-9, 4-6) and Mississippi State (12-9, 3-7) need strong runs to make the NCAAs.
Georgia, loser of four straight after a six-game winning streak placed it in the Top 25, travels to Tennessee on Saturday and plays host to South Carolina and Mississippi State before finishing the regular season at Arkansas.
South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler said the Bulldogs' schedule strength should bolster their tournament pedigree. Georgia played a rugged pre-conference schedule, which is a big reason why the Bulldogs' Rating Percentage Index (RPI) - a figure used by the NCAA since 1981 to determine selection of at-large teams - is No. 16 nationally.
"If they win seven to nine in our league with maybe one win in the (SEC) tournament, they could probably get in," said Fogler, whose Gamecocks are fighting their own battle for NCAA consideration. South Carolina, looking for its first postseason bid since 1998, plays at No. 21 Alabama tonight at 8.
Historically, 8-8 conference records don't bode well. Since the SEC split into two divisions before the 1991-92 season, only two of the nine league teams that have broken even have earned entry into the NCAAs. No team has finished below .500 in the conference and received an at-large bid.
It's a sore subject for Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team was snubbed by the NCAA selection committee last season after going 8-8 and 19-11 overall.
"A lot of the teams that are getting at-large bids would not be able to finish .500 in this league, so I think that's a pretty good barometer," said Stallings, whose Commodores are 14-7, 4-6 in the SEC. "If you go .500 in this league, you should be in."
The SEC has placed six teams in the NCAAs the past two seasons. The only conference to have sent more than six was the Big Ten, which had seven in 1999.
Alabama coach Mark Gottfried echoed Stallings' sentiments, saying he saw no reason why the SEC shouldn't have seven in the tournament. The RPI ratings, which list the SEC as the second toughest conference in the country, back him up.
"We have 12 teams in this league," Gottfried said. "I think there's a mental block with people sending a sixth or even a seventh team to the tournament from one league. But when you have 12 teams like we do, I think that you have a number of teams that are deserving to play in it."
The Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) has been used by the NCAA since 1981 to supplement the selection of at-large teams and the seeding of all teams for the NCAA basketball tournament. The NCAA does not release the RPI to the public, but Collegiate Basketball News compiles a list that uses the same factors: winning percentage (25 percent), schedule strength (50 percent), and opponents' schedule strength (25 percent). A look at where SEC teams stack up:
1. North Carolina
6. Michigan State
9. Boston College
13. Iowa State
18. Notre Dame
20. Southern Cal
35. Mississippi State
41. South Carolina
102. Louisiana State
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or email@example.com.