Breaking Down the SEC Bubble Teams

With less than two weeks left in the regular season, just three SEC teams are safely in the field of 68.  Here’s a look at the other five squads still fighting for at-large berths and a glimpse at their remaining schedules.

Alabama (17-9, 6-6 SEC, RPI: 38)

With seven Top 100 wins, the Tide might look safe on the surface, but a rash of suspensions has played a role in the team going 4-6 in the last 10 games.  The suspensions are starting to sort themselves out, but it’s unclear when JaMychal Green will return to the lineup.

Alabama ranks seventh in offensive efficiency in league play, and while you might think the suspensions have had an impact, that doesn’t appear to be the case.  The Tide scored under 1.00 points per possession four times in the first eight games and twice out of the last four.  They rank third in two-point shooting and fourth in OReb%, but they are ninth or worse in FTR, TO%, and three-point shooting at a dismal 27.2%.

Similarly, the defense has continued to be effective even with Green and Tony Mitchell out.  Alabama ranks second in defensive efficiency and has allowed just three league foes to score over 1.00 ppp.  They are first against three-point shooting, third in TO%, and fourth in eFG% defense, all of which should help them stay competitive down the stretch.

The remaining schedule isn’t brutal, but it isn’t a cakewalk either.  The Tide play at Arkansas tonight in a game the Hogs desperately need to win, and then they host Mississippi State and Auburn before finishing at Ole Miss.  Splitting those games is likely enough barring an early exit from the SEC Tournament.

Mississippi State (19-9, 6-7 SEC, RPI: 60)

A few weeks ago, no one would have categorized the Bulldogs as a bubble team, but after four straight losses, that is no longer the case.  They missed a golden opportunity on Tuesday night when they blew a double-digit lead against Kentucky.

The team’s strength is clearly its offense.  The Bulldogs rank fourth in efficiency in SEC play and also rank fourth in three-point shooting and eFG%.  With a number of big bodies inside, the fact that they are 11th in OReb% is pretty startling, and they are in the middle of the pack in terms of TO% and FTR.  Offensive woes have been the main factor in their recent slump, as MSU has been held to 1.00 ppp or less in three straight after failing to reach that mark just twice through their first 10 games.  The culprit hasn’t always been the same though, as an ugly TO% did them in against LSU while poor shooting limited them versus Auburn.

Defense has been a struggle throughout for Mississippi State.  They rank 10th in efficiency in SEC play and have surrendered at least 1.08 ppp to eight of their 13 league opponents.  Interestingly, they are first in DReb% and third in FTR, but those aren’t enough to offset the fact that they rank ninth in two-point defense, 11th in three-point defense, and dead last in TO%.

With just three games left, the Bulldogs need to find a way to go 2-1 in order to get to 8-8 in the league.  This weekend’s trip to Alabama will be a challenge, and then they finish at South Carolina and home against Arkansas.

LSU (17-10, 7-6 SEC, RPI: 63)

LSU’s profile may not be as impressive as some of the others, but at least they have won four straight while their bubble brethren are reeling. 

The Tigers are in the middle of the pack in efficiency on both ends of the floor.  On offense, they rank 6th overall, but outside of a decent TO%, they are in the bottom half of the league in the other three factors.  They scored 1.23 ppp against Ole Miss in their conference opener but have broken 1.05 just once since then.  That said, they have managed to score at least 1.02 ppp in four of the last five, so they are at least improving thanks in part to the return of freshman big man Johnny O’Bryant, who missed the first five league games.

O’Bryant has also helped on the defensive end, particularly on the boards and with blocked shots.  LSU is currently 7th in the league in defensive efficiency, but they have held four of their last five foes to 0.94 ppp or less.  However, they have routinely been torched when playing the top offensive teams in the league, as evidenced by their performances against Kentucky (1.32 ppp), Vanderbilt (1.27 ppp), and Florida (1.17 ppp).  The Tigers rank between sixth and eighth in all four factors and have also benefitted from poor free throw shooting by their opponents.

If LSU can win at Ole Miss this weekend, they have a decent shot to run the table against Tennessee at home and at Auburn.  That would give them 10 SEC wins and plenty of momentum heading into the conference tournament.

Mississippi (15-12, 5-8 SEC, RPI: 71)

Wednesday’s loss at Tennessee was probably the final nail in the coffin, but I’m leaving the Rebels on the bubble on the off chance they get to 8-8 in the league by beating three other bubble teams.

Mississippi has the top-rated OReb% in league play, but they are just eighth overall in offensive efficiency.  A solid FTR is negated by 59.5% free throw shooting, and the Rebels are eighth in eFG% and ninth in TO%.  They have scored over 1.00 ppp just once in the last six games and have managed over 1.03 ppp in just two league contests.

Defensively things aren’t much better, as Ole Miss checks in at ninth in league play.  They do a decent job of limiting their opponents’ trips to the line but they are sixth or worse in the other three factors, including an 11th-ranked TO%.  Things have been even worse on defense of late with four of their last five opponents scoring at least 1.11 ppp, including Vandy’s unfathomable 1.46 ppp. 

While the Rebels have lost five of their last six, remaining home games with LSU and Alabama give them a chance to add to their profile, as does a trip to Arkansas.  If they can sweep those games to get to 8-8 in the league and make a decent run in the SEC Tournament, there’s a chance Mississippi can play their way in.  However, their recent play makes that seem pretty unlikely.

Arkansas (17-10, 5-7 SEC, RPI: 84)

The Razorbacks are here largely based on quality wins against Michigan and Vanderbilt, but they are 0-9 away from home and have lost four of their last five.

Despite scoring over 1.00 ppp in just three conference games, Arkansas is fifth in offensive efficiency, but outliers against Vanderbilt (1.24 ppp) and Mississippi State (1.27 ppp) are really pulling up their average.  The Razorbacks rank fifth in eFG%, TO%, and FTR but are dead last in OReb% at 27.1%.

Outside of their top-ranked TO%, the Razorbacks have been extremely poor on defense.  They are 11th in efficiency in league play and are also 11th in eFG%, DReb%, and FTR along with a league-worst two-point defense that allows 56.2% shooting inside the arc.  Arkansas has been torched by Florida (1.44 ppp) and Georgia (1.35 ppp), who are among six league opponents to score at least 1.12 ppp against them.  They have managed to hold four teams to 0.93 ppp or less, but all of those came against poor offensive squads.

The best thing the Razorbacks have going for them is the fact that three of their four remaining games come against other bubble teams.  They host Alabama and Mississippi and travel to Auburn and Mississippi State in search of that elusive road win.  If they can manage to go 4-0, they have a relatively compelling case.  Otherwise, it’s hard to see them making it.

Follow me on Twitter (@AndyBottoms) for more of my thoughts on college basketball.