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February 23, 2009

Even the SEC's best are not looking good

This is setting up as a history-making season in the SEC but not the kind of history the league would like.

While LSU is running away with the Western Division title, there are four teams involved in the race for the Eastern Division championship. The big problem for the SEC, though, is that none of its teams are really that good.

Yes, Florida and LSU already have 20-win seasons. Kentucky and South Carolina will reach that plateau as well. But just one league team Tennessee is in the top 35 of the RPI. If you've seen the Vols play of late, they're far from an NCAA lock.

Tennessee was hammered 77-58 by Kentucky on Saturday, UK's second rout of the Vols this season. Afterward, Vols coach Bruce Pearl told reporters that his past teams "have played hard and unselfishly. This team doesn't do either."

The Vols have lost two in a row and three of five, and it's not exactly as if the losses have come to powerhouses Auburn, Kentucky and Ole Miss.

LSU has won eight in a row to run its record to 23-4. Still, the Tigers' RPI is just 36th, mainly because of a pitiful non-conference schedule. LSU played three top-100 non-conference opponents and lost all three. Nine of the Tigers' wins have come against teams with RPIs of 200th or worse, and another seven have comes against teams between 100th and 199th in the RPI. That means 16 of their wins more than two-thirds have come against teams ranked 100th or worse in the RPI, and just two have come against teams in the top 50.

The weak non-conference schedule was commonplace for SEC teams. Tennessee's non-conference schedule ranks first nationally. But Kentucky's is 171st, Florida's 217th, LSU's 259th and South Carolina's 285th.

What this means is that it's extremely likely no SEC team will receive a top-four seed in this season's NCAA tournament. The league also is in danger of receiving just four bids. And that's where making history comes into play.

The SEC is the only league to have at least five teams make the NCAA field every season since '97, when the current "Big Six" configuration came into play. And the last time the SEC didn't have at least one team seeded at least fourth was in 1990, when it had just three teams make the field and none seeded better than fifth.

The last time a "Big Six" league didn't have at least one No. 4 seed was in 2004, when the Big Ten had just three teams and none was seeded better than fifth. That's the only time this decade a "power" conference didn't have at least one No. 4 seed.

The Pac-10 also is in danger of not having at least one team seeded No. 4 or better. The last time two "Big Six" leagues didn't have at least a No. 4 seed in one season? It has never happened.

The last time it happened to the Pac-10 was in 1986, when the league got just two teams into the field and the best seeding was a No. 9.

Boomer Sooner
Despite Oklahoma's narrow loss at Texas on Saturday night a loss in which the Sooners garnered much respect for the way they played without star forward Blake Griffin it has been an unreal year for the Sooners across the board.

OU played in the national championship game in football, has a great shot at a No. 1 seed in men's basketball and a great shot at a No. 1 seed in women's basketball.

In addition, Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford won the Heisman, Griffin has a great chance to be national player of the year in men's basketball and Courtney Paris will be in the discussion about player of the year in women's basketball.

Hoop Talk
Keep an eye on Virginia Tech the rest of the way. The Hokies are 16-10 overall and 6-6 in the ACC. While they looked like a sure NCAA entrant a few weeks ago, that's not the case anymore. Their RPI is just 64th after play Saturday, they have lost three in a row and five of seven and they have arguably the toughest closing stretch of any team in the nation. They finish out the regular season against Clemson, Duke, North Carolina and Florida State, with the Clemson and FSU games on the road. Virginia Tech has two top-50 wins at Wake Forest and at Miami but the non-conference schedule wasn't good, and they probably need to split their remaining four regular-season games to have a legit chance at an at-large bid.

Xavier once looked to have a stranglehold on the Atlantic 10 regular- season title, but the Musketeers have lost three of their past four and are tied in the loss column in the league race with Dayton and Temple. Each of Xavier's losses has come on the road and it has two road games left, against Richmond and Saint Joseph's; the Musketeers also get Dayton at home. The team to watch here is Temple, which has the easiest closing stretch in the league.

Oklahoma's loss at Texas leaves Gonzaga (West Coast Conference) and Memphis (Conference USA) as the only teams unbeaten in conference play. Conversely, Oregon's win over Stanford means there are just three winless teams in league play: Air Force in the Mountain West, DePaul in the Big East and Southeast Missouri State in the Ohio Valley. DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright has received a vote of confidence from his athletic director, but a winless conference season may change that.

From the weird-but-true files: Utah State lost at Saint Mary's on Saturday and saw its potential NCAA at-large hopes take a hit but the Aggies' RPI actually improved. Utah State's RPI went from 34th to 28th. Utah State already has clinched at least a tie for the WAC regular-season title, but the Aggies' non-conference resume is such that it would be a 50-50 proposition at best that they would get in the field of 65 as an at-large entrant. Almost half (12 of 25) of their wins have come against teams ranked worse than 200th in the RPI, and another eight have come against teams ranked between 100th and 199th. They have one top-50 win, at home against Utah.

One of the more entertaining leagues has been the Mountain West, which is sixth in the conference RPI standings and could get as many as four NCAA bids. Utah has a two-game lead in the regular-season race, but four teams are vying to finish second: BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV. The first three are 8-4 in the league, while UNLV is 8-5. UNLV's trump card is that it hosts the league tournament. New Mexico has the weakest RPI of the quintet, and not even Utah can rest easy. The Utes still must play host to UNLV and go to BYU and New Mexico.

TV talk
It's never too early to make plans - for summer vacation, the holidays or Thursday nights in the fall. Here is ESPN's Thursday night schedule so far:
Sept. 3: South Carolina at North Carolina State
Sept. 10: Clemson at Georgia Tech
Sept. 17: Georgia Tech at Miami
Sept. 24: Ole Miss at South Carolina
Oct. 1: Colorado at West Virginia
Oct. 8: Nebraska at Missouri
Oct. 22: Florida State at North Carolina
Oct. 29: North Carolina at Virginia Tech
Nov. 5: Virginia Tech at East Carolina
Nov. 19: Colorado at Oklahoma State
Nov. 26 (Thanksgiving): Texas at Texas A&M
Dec. 3: Oregon State at Oregon
Grid Bits
Michigan recently finalized its 2009 schedule, adding a game against Delaware State. Too bad it couldn't be Delaware, which has the same helmet design as the Wolverines. Michigan State finalized its schedule, too, by adding a game against Montana State; it will be the Spartans' first game against a lower-division school since the NCAA split up Division I in 1978. Notre Dame, UCLA, USC and Washington are the only FBS (i.e., Division I-A) schools not to play a lower-division opponent since then.

Two weeks ago, in an item about the interesting start to Lane Kiffin's tenure, it was mentioned that Kiffin had denigrated Georgia's in-state recruiting efforts on a radio show. It turns out that's not true. On Georgia coach Mark Richt's season-ending teleconference, a radio reporter from Cartersville, Ga., asked Richt for a response to a comment the reporter said Kiffin made on the air about Georgia going "to sleep" on some in-state prospects. Last week, about seven weeks after asking the question of Richt on the teleconference, the radio reporter told the Athens (Ga.) Banner Herald that Kiffin had never talked to him though the reporter did say he had heard a Kiffin interview on a different station.

Kudos to former USF defensive back Anthony Henry, who donated $100,000 to the school to use on renovations to the locker room and weight room.

Money matters
In what might be a harbinger for smaller leagues nationwide, the Southern Conference announced last week that it would be introducing some cost-cutting measures for the 2009-10 academic year.

The league will require two-day baseball series instead of three, meaning a doubleheader will be played on one of the days. The conference also announced that its volleyball, softball, men's and women's soccer and men's and women's conference tournaments would be limited to the top four teams. Most of the tourneys had been held with eight teams, and there were nine in softball and 11 in women's tennis.

The conference also said it no longer would hold preseason media days for football and basketball and would stop printing media guides for all sports.

The conference estimated it would save about $120,000 from the moves; obviously, some schools will save money, as well, because of the cutbacks in the number of teams that will qualify for the league tournaments.

The league said it will re-examine the decision in January 2010 to decide whether to continue with the cutbacks.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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