LSU comes to Gainesville this Tuesday night for an ESPN showdown as a 10-point underdog. The Tigers are 13-4, but just No. 59 in KenPom, and their 40th-ranked defense doesn't cover for their 126th-ranked offense. And the last three meetings in the series have all gone the Gators' way by double digits.
But the most important number to Florida on this night might be 50.
That's the spot LSU occupies in ESPN's calculation of the Ratings Percentage Index, and it puts the Tigers within a magical and arbitrary garden — the RPI's top 50 — that makes beating them "more" worthwhile.
You see, the NCAA Tournament's Selection Committee looks at RPI — a flawed and somewhat inaccurate measure of a team's accomplishments that I've been threatening to gripe about at length for a while — as a shorthand for a team's successes. If a team beats enough teams with a high RPI to compile one of its own, that team is often golden on Selection Sunday; if not, that team might be on the outs. And wins against RPI Top 25 teams, RPI Top 50 teams, and RPI Top 100 teams all factor into the Committee's decision-making: Those categories are literally on the page when Committee members look at a team's NCAA Tournament resume.
Florida, by virtue of losing all of its games against top teams to date, sits at No. 64 in that same ESPN RPI, and at 0-5 against the RPI Top 50. (Florida's plight is little different in the CBS and RealTimeRPI calculations, where the Gators are No. 68 and No. 69, respectively.) A win over LSU wouldn't just boost Florida's own RPI — it might count as a top-50 win, eventually, though LSU is likely to fall a bit with a loss.
And Florida can't miss too many more chances against high-RPI teams. The Gators' loss to Georgia on Saturday cost them a shot at a team that has hovered on the fringe of the RPI Top 25 all season, and the only SEC team with a better RPI in ESPN's estimation is Kentucky. Arkansas, Texas A&M, Mississippi, Alabama, and LSU are all within the RPI Top 50 for now, and Tennessee is No. 51, and Florida will play nine games against those teams before season's end, but five of those games are on the road, where Florida is 1-3 this season, and four of those games are the Gators' next four contests, making the current fortnight crucial to Florida's NCAA Tournament chances.
If the Gators go 4-0 over their next four games — tonight's contest with LSU, road trips to Mississippi and Alabama, and a home meeting with Arkansas — they will likely jump into the RPI Top 50 themselves, and would greatly improve their shot at making the NCAA Tournament. Going 3-1 would make an at-large berth would help, too.
And Florida's certainly good enough to do that. The only team the Gators are likely to see with a better KenPom rating than theirs (No. 25 entering today) is Kentucky (No. 1 now and for the forseeable future). Nine other SEC teams reside in the KenPom top 100, but only Georgia joins UK and UK in its top 30.
History also suggests that KenPom top 25 teams very rarely miss their chance to dance. No. 25 Iowa did in 2013, and No. 25 Wichita State did in 2011, but Nos. 1-24 have made the NCAA Tournament in all but one year since the 2001-02 season, and the "power conference" teams to not make March Madness despite being in the KenPom top 25 (Florida State in 2004, Mississippi State in 2007, and Iowa in 2013) all finished the year with 13 or more losses.
But going 2-2 over those four games — very possible, given that two are at home and two are on the road — would leave Florida close to where it sits now, and on pace for 13 losses. And going 1-3 or 0-4 would put Florida's March Madness chances on life support, with the Gators likely needing a superb close to the SEC slate or a win over powerhouse Kentucky to resuscitate them.
Tonight, the Gators begin a January fortnight that will shape their March fortunes. If it goes well, there might not be March sadness for this team after all.