College basketball’s best week is next week, as the NCAA Tournament spins up. But its maddest week, the one with the most chaos, is this week: Championship Week, as ESPN has dubbed the more-than-a-week span of conference tournaments that terminates this Sunday with the SEC Tournament final and others, is when plenty of March magic happens.
And Florida, as the SEC’s No. 3 seed, gets to sit much of it out, playing only on Friday at 9 p.m. Eastern in St. Louis in an SEC Tournament quarterfinal. If whatever team meets the Gators — it’s either Arkansas, Ole Miss, or South Carolina; you can see the full bracket here — defeats the Gators, Florida’s Championship Week could amount to a two-hour cameo on that Friday night.
But there would still be plenty for the Gators, and Florida fans, to root for, because Florida’s NCAA Tournament standing is good but not great.
The SEC Tournament
First of all, Florida really ought to want its toughest SEC Tournament possible. The Gators have wins over every SEC team other than Georgia and Tennessee this year, and really don’t need to worry too much about those matchups: They can’t see the Dawgs in St. Louis until the championship game, which Georgia would have to beat Missouri, Kentucky, and likely Auburn to reach, and they played the Vols tight in Knoxville.
There’s no reason for this team to fear any other SEC squad — it can beat all of them. And there’s no reason for Florida to want upsets to happen, because wins over, say, South Carolina and Mississippi State are not going to move the needle significantly for this team.
So Florida can hope for better teams to beat, which could confer as many as three Quadrant 1 wins over the course of the weekend in St. Louis. Ripping off three straight wins over Arkansas, Tennessee, and Auburn would almost certainly give Florida three such pelts; no other path is likely to do so.
Specifically, though, Florida probably most wants Arkansas to win. The Razorbacks are hovering around No. 30 in RPI; if the Hogs stay above that threshold, it will mean Florida’s home win over Arkansas is a Quadrant 1 win.
But if Arkansas is No. 31? That’s a Quadrant 2 win.
And Arkansas falling one spot in RPI thanks to a loss to South Carolina is more likely than South Carolina jumping five spots thanks to a win over Arkansas. That boost would theoretically make the Gamecocks No. 75 in RPI, and would mean that Florida’s win over the ‘Cocks in Columbia was suddenly a Quadrant 1 win and its loss in Gainesville to them a Quadrant 2 defeat.
But, again, that’s a much more remote possibility than Arkansas staying a top-30 team by holding serve, and the same goes for Georgia improving its RPI positioning enough to move Florida’s home loss to the Dawgs out of the Quadrant 3 range.
Basically, Florida should be happy to see Georgia win unless the Dawgs drain all of the juiciest opportunities from their side of the bracket, eager to see Arkansas tomorrow night, and ready for the challenge of taking on the top SEC teams, because it has no better way to improve its own stock.
Elsewhere in America
The SEC Tournament — and especially Florida’s own efforts in it — is going to do most of the work toward firming up or weakening the Gators’ resume. But the Gators will be helped by other competitive teams losing.
Per the spectrum of bracketologists who comprise the Bracket Matrix, Florida is currently the top No. 6 seed. The eight teams on the No. 4 and No. 5 lines above the Gators are Texas Tech, Wichita State, West Virginia, Arizona, Gonzaga, Clemson, Ohio State, and Kentucky; the three No. 6s behind Florida are Houston, TCU, and Miami.
Of those teams, Texas Tech, Wichita State, West Virginia, Arizona, Clemson, Kentucky, Houston, and Miami still have yet to conclude tournament play; Ohio State was part of last week’s Big Ten Tournament, Gonzaga has already won the West Coast Conference Tournament, and TCU has already fallen in the Big 12 Tournament.
Obviously, Florida would like all of those teams to lose — but Gonzaga, Clemson, and Kentucky losing as late as possible would be (or was, in Gonzaga’s case) helpful, given Florida’s games against those teams. Ideally, Florida will be able to pick up a third win over Kentucky in the SEC Tournament, and watch Clemson slash to an ACC Tournament title that makes that loss look even more forgivable.
But Wichita State losing late — and to American No. 1 seed Cincinnati, Florida’s biggest win of the season — would also be helpful, even if the Shockers are still competing with the Gators for a spot on the No. 4 or No. 5 seed lines. The Bearcats have split games with Wichita thus far, but getting a rubber-match win in the AAC Tournament final would burnish their stock — and, by extension, Florida’s.
Why this matters
Florida is capable of making a deep run into this NCAA Tournament regardless of its seeding, because Florida is capable of beating virtually any team that will qualify for the field on its best nights. Florida’s chances of making that deep run improve if the Gators dodge tougher teams that have better chances of knocking them off on non-best nights, and getting to the No. 4 seed line — where geographical protections begin to apply, and the truly fearsome mid-majors often relegated to the No. 12 line are more scarce — would be a huge help with that.
The caliber of opponent is probably significantly more likely to affect Florida than geography this year, as none of the regional sites is particularly close. (The best one for the Gators is probably Nashville, with Charlotte a close second, but Florida could well get exiled to Boise or Wichita — and there’s a chance that Wichita State could play in Wichita as a No. 4 seed, which would be daunting for a prospective No. 5.) But you and I would both feel better about Florida’s chances in a game in Charlotte or Detroit rather than one in Boise or San Diego, regardless.
There’s also a moonshot possibility for the Gators: If Florida gets that toughest SEC Tournament road and still claims the league’s postseason trophy, the Gators could conceivably end up a No. 3 seed. In that hypothetical, the Gators would add wins over Auburn and Tennessee — two likely No. 3s at the moment — at a neutral site, and as good a six-game run into Selection Sunday as any team in the field.
Getting up to the No. 3 line would be a stunning rise for Florida — and it would also mean the Gators could not see a No. 1 seed until the Elite Eight. That, if unlikely, is a coup worth chasing.
This post will be updated daily.