It ain't over ‘til it's over, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. Branding any loss as “demoralizing” at this point would overstate our ability to be further demoralized. Pelphrey and the gang have been furiously bailing water from a leaky ship all season, and though the port may be in sight, the choppier waters of a long off-season lie ahead.
We looked incomplete and otherwise limited in the cavernous Nashville gymnasium against Vandy, more so than perhaps any game since that cringe-inducing loss to Auburn at home. We had previously shown sparks of competitiveness, taking several of the purported class of the SEC into the final minutes. However, developments of the past week indicate that no such “class” exists. Parity and youth rule the day, though the Hogs seem to be running slightly behind the curve.
That's not to say our conference is as down as ESPN would have you believe. Tennessee had solid noncon showings while chalking a very tough RPI (the formula used to establish strength-of-schedule), beating Marquette and a pre-collapse Georgetown and taking Gonzaga to the wire twice. Kentucky gave one up to Louisville in the final seconds of a toughly-contested game, with only a prayer sent up by Edgar Sosa between them and a win on the Cardinals' home floor. Indeed, with the exception of genuine articles Pitt and UConn, I'd wager SEC teams would fare all right in the much-touted Big East.
I'm even tempted to bring up our wins over Texas and Oklahoma in this context. Blake Griffin is the kind of athlete who can carry a team to the Final Four, and while I wouldn't bet on the over-hyped Texas, nobody knows what their stars are likely to do with everything on the line. I think most know that the Big 12 is something of a chimera, even if those stunning wins have only grown more inexplicable over time.
SEC hopes for the Big Dance aren't high, with one national columnist going so far as to say the conference deserves “exactly one” tourney slot. I can imagine four or five contenders, and believe that Mississippi State in particular could do some damage, but we're projected currently at just three bids: LSU, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Of course, the winner of the SEC tournament might not be on that list yet.
Regardless of national context, this weekend's competition should be totally unpredictable and all kinds of awesome. The hottest teams going in? Auburn and Alabama. Alabama wouldn't have been mentioned as contenders just a few weeks ago, when they were still a team hamstrung by the midseason loss of their coach. Auburn, on the other hand, could very well slip past South Carolina into the NCAA tournament bracket given a solid outing.
Thursday's got a full slate of quality match-ups, including Arkansas versus a Florida team they can hang with given their best effort. Rotnei Clarke went completely quiet in the team's first meeting, but he's not the same player he was then. The Gators will feel almost at home in Tampa, but an uncharacteristically subdued performance by Nick Calathes could lose them any game against anybody.
I like Mississippi State and Auburn for the final, but the most exciting thing about the games ahead is how foolish hazarding a firm guess could make me look in the end. No team is a sure thing. In the absence of a postseason outlook that allows us to fully commit behind our team, I'll take chaos over order anytime.