5 biggest SEC storylines to watch heading into Selection Sunday
Finally. It’s here.
The Selection Sunday that’s been 2 years in the making is now upon us. While there are still COVID-relate issues popping up at places like Duke, Virginia and Kansas, the tournament field will be laid out by day’s end.
That, my friends, is a victory. Barring some sort of COVID outbreak, we should see at least 6 SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament when the bracket is revealed (6 p.m., CBS). Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Mizzou and Tennessee have all but punched their respective tickets thanks to a pretty chalk-y SEC Tournament.
So what are the top SEC storylines heading into Selection Sunday?
1. Ole Miss’ bubble
There shouldn’t be a whole lot of bubble drama for SEC teams. Ole Miss appears to be the only SEC team having to sweat it out on Selection Sunday. Kermit Davis’ squad missed a golden opportunity to pick up another quality win against a solid LSU squad in a back-and-forth game on Friday night. Given the way that things shook out — more on that in a minute — that seemed like it would’ve practically punched a ticket.
Ole Miss went into Saturday among the “first 4 out” without a chance to really boost the résumé other than pulling for a Tennessee win against Alabama in the SEC Tournament semifinals. The good news is that a bunch of bubble teams like Michigan State, Syracuse, Louisville, Duke, Seton Hall and UCLA all had early conference tournament exits, and the loaded Mountain West bubble was destined to shrink. The problem being that MSU, Syracuse and UCLA were all perceived to be in that group ahead of Ole Miss, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
The other problem was what happened on Saturday night. Both Georgetown (shoutout Patrick Ewing) and Oregon State stole bids by winning their respective conference tournaments. That was a tough development for a bubble that had actually looked somewhat favorable to that point.
Ole Miss fans knew that if a South Carolina win was the only boost, the odds probably weren’t going to be anything better than a coin flip. Even that might be a stretch. If the program is going dancing for the second time in 3 years, it’ll be by the slimmest of margins.
A potential play-in game scenario could await, which would certainly be better than nothing. More likely is that Ole Miss looking at a possible replacement team slot if a team is pulled from the tournament with COVID issues within 48 hours of the selection show (more on that a bit later).
2. Is a 1-seed up for grabs in Nashville?
Can Alabama get there? An impressive comeback win against Tennessee in Saturday’s semifinals was certainly a good start. The Crimson Tide might not have played as well as Arkansas down the stretch in the regular season, but if you told any Alabama fan in December that the program would be a borderline 1-seed heading into Selection Sunday, they would’ve been giddy.
Working in Alabama’s favor potentially was Michigan’s nail-biter loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. Then again, Lunardi did already pour some cold water on that before Saturday’s action:
Joe Lunardi on @SECNetwork on how Alabama can get a No. 1 seed. “I don’t think they can. I think the separation between (Michigan) and (Illinois) at three and four is too much for the Tide to overcome at this point, with no negative commentary at all to what Alabama has done.”
— Brandon Zimmerman (@BZSEC) March 13, 2021
But would that change if Alabama dominated LSU today in the SEC Tournament final? That’s a potential 6-7 team bid league that Alabama would have swept and done so in pretty convincing fashion. As great as Michigan was for most of the year, that’d be quite the loud statement to finish on.
What seems certain? Alabama shouldn’t wind up in the same regional as Gonzaga. That’s a win for Nate Oats’ squad.
It’ll be interesting to see if Arkansas gets anything other than a 3-seed after Saturday’s loss to LSU. Lunardi said entering the day that moving up to a 2-seed wasn’t likely because of how solid the 2-seeds were. Even with the loss, one would think Arkansas beating Mizzou eliminated any chance of falling to that potential 4-seed, which seems like a brutal spot to be given how dominant the likely 1-seeds have been.
There’s still plenty for Arkansas fans to celebrate on Sunday.
3. Will there be any lingering effects of the John Fulkerson-Omar Payne incident?
That question is 2-fold. Let’s first start with the Payne part of it.
Check that. Let’s back up. In case you missed it on Friday, Payne’s elbow to Fulkerson was the headline from the Florida-Tennessee quarterfinal matchup:
Woah. Omar Payne with quite the elbow. pic.twitter.com/a6038iJn9h
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) March 12, 2021
Payne was ejected with a flagrant-2. No further discipline was announced. Of course, Mike White would’ve had to have addressed his status had Florida stayed alive in the SEC Tournament. It remains to be seen if there will be any further punishment for Payne. If there is, that’s certainly tough for Florida from an on-court standpoint given how inconsistent the Gators have been in 2020-21.
On the Fulkerson side, he missed Saturday’s game with a concussion and a facial fracture. He was ruled out of the rest of the SEC Tournament. Hopefully the senior can return for the NCAA Tournament. Would that impact Tennessee’s potential seeding? One would hope that it wouldn’t, especially after the Vols gave Alabama everything it could handle in the semifinals on Saturday.
(For what it’s worth, Payne reached out to Fulkerson and apologized for the incident. Fulkerson shared that he had no ill-will toward Payne.)
For a bit, Tennessee looked like a team who suddenly got a shot of life from Fulkerson’s injury. Like, the Vols took it personally and they were about to go off on a run in the wake of losing their leader. Alabama wore Rick Barnes’ squad down, but the Vols still look like a dangerous team if they can get past Round 1 and face a potential 2- or 3-seed.
4. How high can LSU rise?
After halting Arkansas’ 12-game SEC winning streak, LSU in the conference championship for the first time in 28 years, and it’s searching for its first title since 1980. That’s right. Georgia football has a national title that’s more recent than LSU’s last conference tournament title in basketball.
One would think that the Tigers, who came into the day on the 7-seed line, should have moved up to at least the 6-spot. What about a potential win over Alabama? Could LSU even get to a 5-seed? I think there’s a good case for it, especially with what the Tigers did in the last week against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams away from home if you include the win at Mizzou.
The thing holding LSU back has obviously been the defense, but the Tigers showed flashes of being at least competent on that side of the ball. That seems like a dangerous formula with how high-powered Will Wade’s offense is. Alabama will push LSU in ways similar to Arkansas.
Here’s an interesting question, though. Is LSU actually better off getting the 6-seed as opposed to the 5? I mean from a long-term standpoint. Potentially facing a 1-seed in the Sweet 16 would be on the table if LSU moved up to the 5, which seems like a potential matchup with either Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan or Illinois. I’d much rather face one of those 2-seeds.
There’s your spin zone if the 5-seed doesn’t happen, LSU fans.
5. What are the COVID curveballs that await?
In hindsight, it’s a bit bizarre that conference tournaments were played in the same timeframe as a normal year. As we’ve seen this past week, there are still teams battling curveballs. The good news for tournament teams is that 1 positive COVID test doesn’t wipe out a team for good. But if there is an outbreak and a team cannot field 5 players — per the NCAA rules — then we’d see a replacement team. That’s only if it happens within 48 hours of the Selection Show. There won’t be any replacement teams once the tournament starts.
Got all that?
What can still happen is the same thing we’ve seen throughout this school year. A positive COVID test can knock out a star player. Daily testing is going to impact the NCAA Tournament, even with the Indianapolis-area bubble.
What if we find out on Sunday that a star player tested positive and will be out in the first round? Would that impact seeding? What if we found out that a coach of a top-10 team tested positive? Given the year that’s been, nothing is set in stone.
Fingers crossed that the curveballs will be few and far between on Sunday … and the next 3 weeks.