A college basketball tournament is supposed to be a celebration.
It’s an opportunity for the members of a conference to get together in one place, recognize their best with regular season awards and for everybody (or most everybody, depending on the format) to go head to head in pursuit of one more trophy.
This week’s Southeastern Conference tournament, which begins Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena, is more like an excavation. Analysts and columnists and — most importantly — selection committee members will pick through the rubble of a generally disastrous regular season to see what can be salvaged for use in the NCAA tournament.
What a difference a couple months and the shape of a ball makes.
For most of college football’s regular season the debate raged over how anyone could justify not putting two SEC teams in the national title game. Alabama’s romp over Notre Dame really did nothing to suggest that the correct choice was made in that regard.
College basketball’s regular season, on the other hand, did nothing to suggest that the SEC deserves any more than two teams — if that many — in the field of 68.
Florida is the only one that has an airtight case for inclusion. The Gators are the regular season champions and have been ranked in or near the top 10 in the nation virtually all season. They might even be good enough to win the entire thing, which would be a shock to those who have taken delight in the conference’s struggles.
Missouri is a safe bet but not all that awe-inspiring.
After that, take your pick. It’s easy to pick at just about any team enough to prove that it doesn’t belong in the NCAA field.
Typically, it’s unthinkable to consider a bracket without Kentucky. But how could anyone really think about including the Wildcats after they lost back-to-back games at Arkansas and Georgia last week? Plus, the sting of the 30-point loss at Tennessee back on Feb. 16 has not faded.
Without Nerlens Noel, the superstar freshman lost to a knee injury nearly a month ago, Kentucky is merely an average SEC team, and this season "average" in the SEC means "not very good."
Tennessee is sort of the anti-Kentucky, which is good news under any circumstances to Volunteers fans. In this case, the Vols have gotten better since the start of the season while the Wildcats have gotten worse and UT benefited from one of its top players, Trae Golden, getting healthy. The Vols had their own flop at Georgia, though, a week before Kentucky did.
Maybe it’s just that Georgia is good? Sure, if you consider 15-15 overall, 9-8 in conference play following the Kentucky victory good.
Alabama has a record that makes it worth discussing but lacks any non-conference victories that make an impact. Plus it lost three of four headed into its regular-season finale against — that’s right — Georgia.
The 2012 champion, Vanderbilt, is nowhere near the caliber team it was this time a year ago, although coach Kevin Stallings deserves credit for making his team better along the way rather than simply allowing his head to explode, which seemed entirely possible at times.
Ole Miss has the most entertaining player and a respectable conference record but lost to Mississippi State a little more than a week ago. Mississippi State?
The best-case scenario for this week’s tournament is that Florida and Missouri make it to the semifinals but only one makes it to the championship game and that one loses.
After all, the SEC tournament championship comes with an automatic berth in the national championship field. And it might be that the only way to get a third team to the NCAA is to force one upon the committee.