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Florida, Missouri Show SEC's Depth Even In Defeat

HOOVER, Ala. — The SEC wasted no time getting to the heart of the matter Tuesday as the conference tournament opened in Hoover, Ala. In the first two games of the day, Florida and Missouri, the SEC’s two teams closest to the NCAA Tournament bubble, were knocked out of the SEC Tournament, starting a tense five-day wait until Selection Monday.

Florida and Missouri are tied closely together in their bubble hopes. The Gators swept the Tigers in Columbia, Mo., last weekend, reinvigorating their waning NCAA Tournament hopes. Missouri, meanwhile, went from the hosting bubble to the NCAA Tournament bubble with that sweep, and Tuesday’s loss puts it perilously close to the cut line.

Such is life in the SEC, where the slogan “It just means more” comes to life in Hoover.

The day began with a suddenly red-hot Florida pushing Texas A&M to the brink, in a game the Aggies badly wanted to win to bolster their chances to host a regional in the NCAA Tournament. In the end, Texas A&M pulled out an 8-7 victory in 10 innings to advance to the double-elimination portion of the tournament, which begins Wednesday.

Missouri, which is trending in the opposite direction of Florida, lost, 2-1, to Mississippi. The Tigers could never find a way to break through against righthander Will Ethridge, and, as a result, the Rebels extended their stay in Hoover.

The evening session began with Auburn defeating Tennessee, 5-3, in a game between two teams that appeared to be safely in the NCAA Tournament. Louisiana State defeated South Carolina, 8-6, in the day’s finale. It was a must-win game for the Tigers as they look to improve their resume to host a regional.

Despite all the on-field drama, there was little off it. Unlike in years past, there was minimal politicking in the press conference room. Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan demurred on the opportunity to make a case for his team.

“I’m not going to put my two cents in there,” he said. “You have some smart people making those decisions. At the end of the day, I like our team.”

Missouri coach Steve Bieser was more demonstrative in making the Tigers’ case, but only slightly.

“I like our resume and I like our team,” Bieser said. “This is a team that is going to get healthy in the next week. We’re getting one of our starters back. Everything is rolling our way, and we’d be very difficult in a region, right there.

“I feel like our resume is really solid.”

Both Florida and Missouri have some warts to their resume. The Gators (33-24, 13-17) have a similar resume to 2018 Kentucky, which famously got left out of the NCAA Tournament. Both ranked in the top 30 in RPI, went 13-18 in conference games (the committee counts conference tournament games in that total), had a losing road record and had good—but not great—records against top-100 RPI opponents. Where they differ is that Florida is 5-5 in its last 10 games, including that sweep of Missouri, while Kentucky lost five its last six games, including getting swept by Vanderbilt.

Missouri (34-22-1, 13-16-1) is in slightly worse shape than Florida. Not only is it also under .500 in conference play and got swept at home by Florida, making it difficult to see how the Tigers would get in over the Gators, Missouri is 11-12-1 in road games and 10-17-1 against top-50 RPI teams (and 14-17-1 against top-100 RPI teams).

Comparisons to last year can only be so instructive, however, because every year produces a different group of at-large contenders. This year’s bubble is more forgiving, even if it's sure to tighten this weekend as upsets in conference tournaments produce unexpected bids. And the selection committee also is always a little different. Last year, for instance, the committee made it clear that it valued teams that were at least .500 in conference games, but will this year have to put more teams with losing conference records in the tournament or reach farther down the RPI rankings than it has in the past for at-large teams.

The bubble will continue to clarify itself throughout the week as conference tournaments continue across the country. What is already clear, however, is how deep the SEC is. For teams such as Missouri and Florida, which finished 10th and 11th in the conference standings, to be on the edge of the NCAA Tournament speaks to that. Were they both to get in, the conference would set a record for most bids in one year.

Auburn coach Butch Thompson has been in the SEC as a head coach or assistant coach for 18 years. The league's depth and the tight margins for success it produces continue to impress him.

“Every year I keep thinking this league can’t get any better and it keeps doing it. It keeps surprising me,” Thompson said. “I just continue to be more and more impressed with the coaches, the players, young men like (Tennessee righthander Garrett) Stallings that I’ve seen his entire career.

“This league makes you really good if you can hang in there. If you don’t quit, if you continue persevere, the game will reward you for playing in this league. I think that’s why you see 99 SEC players in the draft last year, you see a quicker track of guys leaving this league and playing at the highest level in the world. Iron sharpens iron, but if you persevere and hang in there, it will reward you.”

After getting knocked out of the SEC Tournament on Tuesday, Florida and Missouri are hoping their perseverance this year will pay off with NCAA Tournament bids. Both have the talent to make noise in regionals if they get in. But now they will have to wait until Selection Monday to learn their fate.

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