Bracketology 101 Exam Week: The SEC

Over the past two seasons, the SEC East has dominated the West, claiming all of the conference's nine NCAA bids in that span. Thanks to the resurgence of Alabama and Mississippi State, that trend may be ending, especially with the bottom half of the East struggling early. Remember that even though the divisions are gone from the SEC standings and tournament bracket, they still impact the schedule. Look for that to change when Missouri and Texas A&M join next season.

For other posts in this series, visit the Bracketology 101 Exam Week 2011-12 section.

Records are accurate as of 12/15/2011.

Passing

Kentucky Wildcats (8-1)
The Wildcats look like a surefire top seed right now, especially since they've shown they can win at home (the classic against North Carolina) on a neutral court (Kansas, Penn State, Old Dominion). However, last year's team took its lumps in the conference en route to a 4 seed, and with the league on the whole being stronger, that could very well happen again, particularly away from Rupp (even if this year's Kentucky team looks to be a bit more mature). For example, look at how they performed in a loss at Indiana Saturday, even if the Hoosiers needed a miracle to hold on. Naturally, the Cats play East rivals Florida and Vanderbilt twice, while they host Alabama and visit Mississippi State.

Alabama Crimson Tide (8-2)
Anthony Grant boosted Alabama's schedule this season, and a move that was paying dividends up until back-to-back losses to Georgetown and at Dayton. Despite those setbacks, the Crimson Tide have certainly established themselves as serious bid contenders, with three wins in San Juan (including ones over Wichita State and Purdue) and a home victory over VCU standing out. Plus, the Tide still get to play Kansas State in Kansas City and Oklahoma State in Birmingham before Christmas. In SEC play, Bama welcomes two of the three Eastern contenders, Florida and Vanderbilt, to Coleman Coliseum, which could spell trouble for the visitors.

Florida Gators (7-2)
The Gators are transitioning from an interior-focused squad to one that relies more on outside shooting, and returns have been mixed so far. Much was made of the difficult schedule Billy Donovan set out for his team, and so far, his team has done fairly well, but has struggled away from home in particular, losing at Ohio State and Syracuse. Still, the fact Florida was competitive in both games bodes well for their progress the rest of the way. The team's struggles with turnovers, offensive efficiency, and foul shots do not. The Gators have two big non-conference games left, Texas A&M in Sunrise on Saturday and Florida State at home in a week's time, along with a potentially tricky trip to Rutgers on December 29th. When SEC play begins, keep an eye on Florida's Valentine's Day trip to Alabama. UF won a 66-65 thriller there in 2010.

Vanderbilt Commodores (6-3)
Vanderbilt looks like a solid NCAA team, though they may not quite be worthy of the amount of hype they received in the preseason. Granted, the Commodores played fairly well without Festus Ezeli, but his return doesn't address their most pressing issue, the lack of an effective point guard. The highlights of Vandy's profile are victories over Oregon (at home), N.C. State, and Oregon State (both at the Legends Classic). There's no shame in a pair of overtime losses to Xavier and Louisville, but an early loss to Cleveland State could be a significant blemish, especially if the Vikings don't win the Horizon League. The Commodores have some tricky non-conference games left, as they welcome defending Missouri Valley champion Indiana State to Memorial Gym on Saturday, travel to Marquette on December 29th, and host Sun Belt contender Middle Tennessee on January 28th, smack in the middle of SEC season. Like Florida, Vandy travels to Alabama and visits Mississippi State during conference play.

Mississippi State Bulldogs (10-1)
Back on November 9th, Mississippi State lost at home to Akron in the 2K Sports Classic, and it looked like it was going to be another long, disappointing season in Starkville. Nine days later, the Bulldogs headed back to campus with the event's trophy in hand, victories over Texas A&M and Arizona on their profile, and a considerable amount of buzz. Rick Stansbury's team has continued to play well, as it's in the midst of a nine-game win streak highlighted by the 2K Sports Classic triumph and a home win over West Virginia. However, there are a few landmines left before SEC play begins. The Bulldogs visit Detroit Saturday and face juggernaut Baylor in Dallas on December 28th. However, New Year's Eve game against Utah State looks considerably less dangerous than it would have in seasons past because of the Aggies' numerous issues. When the SEC season begins, Miss. State will be challenged by trips to Florida and Vanderbilt, while Kentucky visits on February 21st.

Needs Improvement

Mississippi Rebels (9-1)
Andy Kennedy's team has racked up an impressive record by winning a ridiculous number of close games. The Rebels defeated Drake by four in their Paradise Jam quarterfinal, en route to a third-place finish in the event; beat Miami in overtime--after coughing up a huge early advantage; and then, in a four-day span, escaped trips to DePaul and Penn State with a pair of two-point wins. Unfortunately for Ole Miss, those wins probably won't mean much come Selection Sunday. The Rebels have a few tricky games left before SEC play starts, with a December 17th trip to Southern Miss. and a December 30th visit to Dayton, who already beat Alabama at home, jumping out at me. For Mississippi to have a serious shot at making the field, they'll need to win both of those and grab some surprise wins in the league. Note that they must visit Kentucky, while Florida and Vanderbit head to Oxford.

Arkansas Razorbacks (5-3)
Mike Anderson's Razorbacks are yet another team that will have to make an SEC run to earn a bid. A victory over Oakland is their best so far, while a defeats to Houston in North Little Rock and at Oklahoma sting. Outside of the conference, the Hogs' only two remaining games of impact are both at home. The first is against Charlotte on December 28th (OK, so that's one of questionable impact). The other is a visit from Michigan on January 21st. If Arkansas can upset the Wolverines and build up a decent record in the league, they'll have a chance. For their key cross-division games this season, Florida and Vanderbilt visit Bud Walton Arena this season, and the Razorbacks travel to Lexington.

Auburn Tigers (5-1), LSU Tigers (6-3), Georgia Bulldogs (4-5), South Carolina Gamecocks (4-5), Tennessee Volunteers (3-6)
The bad news for the SEC is that the bottom of the league looks to be particularly weal this year, as there's a quartet of teams that's struggling mightily, while Auburn's record is artificially inflated. The Tigers have four wins against some of the worst teams in Division I, but they were completely exposed in a 22-point loss at Seton Hall in the Big East/SEC Challenge. However, the Tigers did beat USF Wednesday at home, not that a win over the Bulls indicates much. Of this group, Auburn and LSU have the most opportunities to grab some wins out of the league (barring South Carolina shocking Ohio State on Saturday). Auburn still has trips to the Diamond Head Classic, where they will meet either Long Beach State or Xavier on Day 2, and Florida State left before conference play starts, while the Bayou Bengals welcome both Marquette and Virginia to Baton Rouge.

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