ATHENS - The Georgia men's basketball team is now the heavy favorite to finish third in the SEC, and since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams (and it's now 68) the conference has never had less than three bids.
So why are the Bulldogs still unlikely to be dancing in March, unless they win the SEC tournament?
First, and most damning, is that nonconference resume'. Georgia lost to three teams that currently have RPI ranks of 140 or worse: Davidson (141), Georgia Tech (161) and Temple (161). Throw in the conference loss to Auburn (158), and a tournament-worthy team needs quality wins to offset them.
Georgia doesn't have any. That gets to the second knock on the Bulldogs, who failed in three chances for a quality nonconference win (George Washington, Colorado and Nebraska) and were uncompetitive against Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee.
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And therein lies the final hurdle for Georgia: It will not get another chance to get such a win until the semifinals of the SEC tournament, if it gets that far.
The one thing Georgia (16-11 overall, 10-5 SEC) has going for it is that it's hot. The NCAA selection committee does look at that. Georgia's final three games includes road trips to Arkansas on Saturday and LSU a week later.
So how conceivable is it for Georgia to get an at-large bid?
"Not very," Jerry Palm, an expert with CBSsports.com, said via e-mail on Wednesday. "Best wins are Mizzou. Four bad losses. Bad road record. No chance to play Florida or Kentucky until SEC semis."
That last point is the key, as Missouri is the only RPI top 50 team that Georgia has beaten - and the Tigers are barely clinging to that status. They're No. 50 after Tuesday's loss.
Here's how Palm summarized the curious case of Georgia's bid on CBSsports.com on Wednesday:
"Georgia is 10-5 in the SEC and in third place in the league by a pretty healthy 2.5 games. Despite that, the Bulldogs aren't close to being a tournament team. They had a very rough nonconference portion of the season, during which they picked up three of their four bad losses. In conference, Georgia's sweep of Mizzou are the Bulldogs best wins and somehow, they have posted 10 league wins, but only three on the road. Those are Georgia's only wins all year outside of Athens. It goes to show how hard it is to build a tournament resume in the SEC. Florida and Kentucky provide the only chances to pick up quality wins. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they didn't get a home game against either."
Georgia's RPI rank as of Wednesday is 80. That's far short of being viable, but that's still a fluid figure. Consider that the Bulldogs were 266 before SEC play began, and in the 100s a few weeks ago, and you see that number can improve.
The worst RPI rank for an at-large team is 74th, by New Mexcio in 1999. And that was under an old formula for the RPI. Since it was changed in 2005, the worst RPI rank for an at-large team is 67th, by Southern California three years ago.
The web site RPIforecast.com projects that Georgia would finish the regular season ranked 73rd if it goes 2-1, the loss being at LSU. A 3-0 finish would result in the Bulldogs being ranked 61st entering the SEC tournament.
None of this means that Georgia absolutely must win the SEC tournament to be an at-large team. But the margin for error is achingly small. The Bulldogs at least need to finish the season 2-1, meaning one more road win and beating Mississippi State in their home finale. Then they would enter the SEC tournament with a chance, but would also have to pray they get a shot at Kentucky or Florida.
Of course, the very fact this is being brought up is a testament to how far the Bulldogs have come in a relatively short amount of time.