NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The first bubble to burst at the Southeastern Conference tournament belongs to the team least capable of playing away from home.
That's the Arkansas Razorbacks, led by Homecourt Mike Anderson. In a league full of abject road kill, they are the worst.
The 78-75 upset loss to Vanderbilt in the second round of the SEC tourney marked Arkansas' 12th loss in 13 games outside its home state. The Hogs were 18-1 at home. The NCAA tournament selection committee isn't going for that.
In his last two years at Missouri (2010 and '11) and his first two at Arkansas (2012 and '13), Anderson is 1-4 in conference tournament games. The Razorbacks, once a vital part of this event, have lost five straight SEC tourney games.
Without Arkansas, the SEC's bubble crowd dwindles to four teams headed into Friday: Alabama and Tennessee, which play each other in what could be an NCAA elimination game; Mississippi, which takes on Missouri at 10 p.m. ET; and Kentucky, which gets the Commodores at 7:30 p.m. ET.
The good news for the Wildcats is that beating Vandy (15-16, No. 126 RPI Thursday) should be easier than beating Arkansas (19-13, No. 79). They've already done it twice this season, though both games were close.
The bad news for the Wildcats is that a loss to Vandy would likely doom Kentucky's NCAA tourney hopes.
But we're really all just guessing how the selection committee will appraise Kentucky, which lost center Nerlens Noel a month ago. Since then the Cats are 4-3 – undefeated at home but winless on the road.
In an attempt to get a grasp on where post-Noel Kentucky really should rank, I asked numbers guru Ken Pomeroy if he could run his stats on the Wildcats' seven games without him. He didn't have time for that, but estimated Kentucky would rank "in the 60-80 range." They're currently 37th in his rankings, which incorporate the entire season.
The 60-80 range is not a good range to be in for a team aspiring to defend an NCAA title. And it certainly would make the Vanderbilt game must-win.
The Commodores, who have staggered through a painful transition season after losing almost all of their players from the 2012 SEC tourney championship team, at least have tourney momentum on their side. They've won four straight in this event and have come a long way since being 8-13 on Feb. 6.
"Earlier in the season we would have lost this game," said Vandy coach Kevin Stallings, whose team led comfortably most of the game – and uncomfortably late as the Commodores missed free throws and turned the ball over.
This was the third upset of the tournament in six games, which fits a tourney that had a wide-open feel coming in. There are doubts about whether any of these teams can string together three or four straight winning performances away from home – but somebody has to.
It just won't be Arkansas, the worst road team in a league full of bad ones.
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