By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
Had you told me before the season LSU would enter Saturday’s SEC finale at Kentucky with a chance to win the conference, I wouldn’t have been shocked in the least.
Had you added the caveat that they’d simultaneously be in danger of missing out on the NCAA Tournament, I’d have told you to put down the bottle and seek immediate help.
And yet, here we are, in the days before the Tigers take to Lexington for a 1 p.m. Saturday tipoff, and that’s precisely where LSU finds itself. Johnny Jones’ crew sits at 18-12 overall and 11-6 in SEC play, just a game back of Texas A&M and Kentucky for the league crown. The SEC doesn’t use tiebreakers to determine conference champions, so a win and some help would see the Tigers hang their first SEC championship banner under Johnny Jones.
But a regular season conference championship, however likely or unlikely it may be, still probably won’t be enough to get LSU into the NCAA Tournament.
Let’s break it down. First a summary of what you’re about to read, because it’s fairly convoluted.
- LSU can negate this entire article by winning the SEC Tournament. Automatic bids are nice.
- The only path I see to an at-large bid is to win Saturday at Kentucky, then make the SEC Tournament final.
- Number 2 is boosted if Texas A&M loses to Vanderbilt on Saturday, which would give LSU a share of the conference title and either the first or second seed in the SEC Tournament.
- If Numbers 2 and 3 happen, LSU would still need to make history to earn at-large bid, as they would be the lowest RPI team to make the tournament at-large since 2005.
Now, the meaty stuff.
LSU will win a share of the SEC title if, and only if, they beat Kentucky AND Vanderbilt beats Texas A&M on Saturday. There is no other scenario for LSU to leave Lexington with a share of the league championship. And it’s not a likely one to occur. As Jones has been fond of reminding the press lately, the SEC boasts the highest home winning percentage – and therefore the lowest road winning percentage – of any league in the conference. Through Feb. 22, road teams in the SEC had won just 28.6 percent of the time in conference play. The odds of that happening twice on Saturday – against the two best teams in the league – are slim to none.
Should that happen, somehow, the Tigers will have accomplished no small feat. A conference championship is nothing to blink at. But depending on how South Carolina fares on Thursday against Georgia and Saturday at Arkansas, that title could end up being shared among five teams. And with Florida’s RPI in the 50s and LSU’s in the 80s, it’s unlikely the committee would take the Tigers ahead of the Gators. As CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm notes, “[c]onference standings are pretty meaningless” to the selection committee.
Speaking of Palm, he says LSU’s only route to the NCAA Tournament is to win the SEC Tournament. There is no at-large path to the dance, according to Palm. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, who has been slightly more optimistic toward LSU all season, gives the Tigers a chance.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi says #LSU must win at UK on Saturday and "go at least to the SEC Tourney final" to have chance at NCAA Tourney
— TigerDroppings (@TigerDroppings) March 2, 2016
As for me, I lean toward Palm’s thinking. As of today, LSU sits at No. 88 in the RPI. If they end up with a share of the conference title, they’ll either be a No. 2 seed or a No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament (more on that below). Either way, that’s a bye to the conference tournament quarterfinals, meaning two wins would fit Lunardi’s criteria of making the SEC tournament finals. Who those wins would be over would be key. If it’s a high RPI/low seed team like Florida – the Gators sit at No. 10 in the conference standings right now – that could help. If it’s a low RPI/higher seed team, that’s less beneficial.
Here’s my back-of-the-napkin calculations for seeding in a five-way tie for the SEC lead (LSU beats Kentucky, Vanderbilt beats Texas A&M, and South Carolina wins out).
[table]Team, vs. LSU, vs. Kentucky, vs. South Carolina, vs. Vanderbilt, vs. Texas A&M, Total
LSU, –, 2-0, 0-1, 1-0, 1-1, 4-2 (.667; 2 seed)
Kentucky, 0-2, –, 1-0, 1-1, 0-1, 2-4 (.333; 5 seed)
South Carolina, 1-0, 0-1, -, 1-0, 1-0, 3-1 (.750; 1 seed)
Vanderbilt, 0-1, 1-1, 0-1, –, 2-0, 3-3 (.500; 3 seed)
Texas A&M, 1-1, 1-0, 0-1, 0-2, –, 2-4 (.333; 4 seed)
Now, for the four-way tie, and the only other way LSU could win the league, should South Carolina lose one of its last two games.
[table]Team, vs. LSU, vs. Kentucky, vs. Vanderbilt, vs. Texas A&M, Total
LSU, –, 2-0, 0-1, 1-1, 4-1 (..800; 1 seed)
Kentucky, 0-2, –, 1-1, 0-1, 1-4 (.333; 4 seed)
Vanderbilt, 0-1, 1-1, –, 2-0, 3-2 (.600; 2 seed)
Texas A&M, 1-1, 1-0, 0-2, –, 2-2 (.500; 3 seed)
Still with me? Let’s play best case at-large scenario and assume LSU beats Kentucky to end the regular season, then beats Florida and Kentucky again in Nashville to make the conference tournament final, where they lose to Vanderbilt. If that happens, LSU will finish 21-13 overall with a No. 70 RPI. Since the RPI began being used as a key criterion in selection, the lowest RPI to earn at at-large bid was No. 67 USC in 2011, and the most losses an at-large team has had is 14 (six times).
Either way, LSU would likely make history: either as the lowest RPI team to make the NCAA Tournament, or as the second regular season conference champion to miss out on an at large bid (Washington in 2012). Or, hell, they could go to Nashville and win the whole damn thing. With this team, anything is possible.
Talk about March Madness.
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