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The Road to the SEC East Championship

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Georgia's heroics yesterday broke a four-way tie atop the SEC East leaderboard, still leaving Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee at 7-3, with Florida now a game back at 6-4. With three weeks and six games left to play, we take a look at each team's remaining schedule and their odds on finishing atop the leaderboard.

For all of these teams, the race for the division crown runs parallel to the quest to get in the field of 65. While it's certainly possible that all four teams will get in, I think it's also safe to say that right now none of them are locks. And with only Florida and South Carolina having completed their season series against each other, there will be plenty of opportunities in the next three weeks for a level of infighting that puts more than one of these teams in the sweatbox in the SEC Tournament in Tampa, feeling the need to get at least one more win.

Tennessee should be the only team that feels safe about finishing at 9-7; the Vols have by far the best non-conference resume of the four teams, and with a strength of schedule that's ranked in the top five unanimously (and ranked first if you the right people) nine wins and the corresponding 18-12 overall record heading to Tampa should do the trick.

10 wins should be enough for anybody; no SEC team has ever finished 10-6 in conference play and failed to make the NCAA Tournament. And of course, there's also the question of seeding for all of these teams; right now Tennessee and Kentucky appear to be hovering on the 6-8 line, but both could move up drastically if they get hot. Florida has an incredibly light non-conference schedule working against it, and needs to finish strong to get the same recognition. And right now I'm not sure the bracketologists know exactly what to make of South Carolina, who was off the radar for so long, now they're like a college football team trying to make its way up the polls late in the season after starting the year unranked. Their bracket projection, which I've seen in the 10-12 range, is probably much lower than it should be.

Here's a look at how all of this will play out over the next three weeks...

(Note: the tiebreakers in SEC Tournament seeding are head-to-head, followed by divisional record, followed by the comparitive win/loss record team-by-team against division opponents from top to bottom until the tie is broken)

Kentucky

  • 18-7, 7-3 SEC, KenPom Rank: 27
  • 4-1 vs. division, 2-1 vs. contenders
  • Remaining Schedule: at Vandy, vs Tennessee, at Carolina, vs LSU, vs Georgia, at Florida (Combined SEC Record: 34-26)

Jodie Meeks continues to show the ability to go off on any given night, putting up 45 points and 7 rebounds at Arkansas on Saturday. When he's scoring like that, UK's proverbial quest to find a third option is meaningless. Kentucky has been more vulnerable than usual at home, with four of their seven losses this season coming at Rupp Arena. The date with LSU does them no favors, but simply managing to beat Vanderbilt and Georgia may give them enough just to get in the door.

South Carolina

  • 18-5, 7-3 SEC, KenPom Rank: 53
  • 4-2 vs. division, 2-2 vs. contenders
  • Remaining Schedule: at Miss. St., vs Arkansas, vs Kentucky, at Vandy, vs Tennessee, at Georgia (Combined SEC Record: 26-34)

The worst non-conference resume combines with the easiest remaining schedule. Carolina does have a marquee win over Baylor that should help them come tournament time, and simply beating the teams they should beat will get them to ten wins in conference play. Plus, they get Kentucky and the Vols in Columbia. Devan Downey can carry this team if necessary, but I've really been impressed with Zam Frederick, and the Cocks have four players averaging double figures. Why no one is comparing Downey to Chris Lofton and this initial Darrin Horn team to Bruce Pearl's first group, I don't know.

Tennessee

  • 16-8, 7-3 SEC, KenPom Rank: 33
  • 6-1 vs. division, 2-1 vs. contenders
  • Remaining Schedule: at Ole Miss, at Kentucky, vs Miss. St., at Florida, at Carolina, vs Alabama (Combined SEC Record: 33-27)

Kentucky's remaining opponents have a slightly better combined winning percentage, but the Vols will be on the road against all three contenders, which I would argue gives them the most difficult remaining road. There are none of these games that I look at as sure things for the Vols, and Tennessee needs to find at least two of them somewhere. If they're going to be capable of winning in Lexington, Gainesville or Columbia, it'd be nice to show some evidence of that by winning in Oxford. The Vols' SEC losses are against Jodie Meeks and LSU and Auburn from the West, so they're in better shape to win a tiebreaker than anyone else right now.

Florida

  • 19-6, 6-4 SEC, KenPom Rank: 42
  • 3-4 vs. division, 1-3 vs. contenders
  • Remaining Schedule: vs Alabama, vs Vandy, at LSU, vs Tennessee, at Miss. St., vs Kentucky (Combined SEC Record: 36-24)

In comparing schedules, it just depends on what you like: Florida's opponents have the best winning percentage, but the Gators get Tennessee and Kentucky in Gainesville. However, trips to LSU and Mississippi State between them mean Florida really, really needs to take care of business this week against Bama and Vandy in the O-Dome. For a number of reasons, I think it's fair to say that this is the team in the most danger right now - they probably won't win a tiebreaker against anybody, they've got little in the non-conference that looks good, and the bottom could really drop out in the last four games. Playing the SEC Tournament in Tampa may be the best thing that ever happened to them.

Remember, the top two seeds get a first round bye in the SEC Tournament (and should, by that point, be secure in their NCAA Tournament status). Whoever finishes third will almost certainly be seeing Arkansas in the first round, for better or worse. And whoever finishes fourth will be staring LSU in the face in the second round. Long story short, even if you can't win this thing, finishing in the top two is an excellent goal both for SEC Tournament purposes, and for protection from the bubble-bursting power of the selection committee.

If all four teams win the games they're supposed to win, no one is going to finish worse than 8-8. That's a very competitive year for your top four teams in the East, and combined with LSU's runaway success at 9-1 (with a schedule that has them facing teams with a combined 28-32 record from here, which will make it very hard for anyone else to win the overall conference crown), the SEC has at least been very competitive and, perhaps, a little better than people give her credit for.

This should be a race to the finish while still offering meaningful contests in Tampa, which is really all you can ask for if you like SEC Basketball. Kentucky, Carolina and Tennessee each control their own destiny, and right now picking a winner is an dartboard exercise. In the next three weeks, we could see total collapse, we could see an incredible hot streak that vaults a team up the bracket, or we could see dog eat dog at every turn. No matter what, this is going to be fun to watch.