Because talk of the Georgia Bulldogs’ NIT prospects is all the rage in Bulldog Nation these days, we decided to ask an expert. Big Apple Buckets, which provides continuing coverage of National Invitational Tournament bracketology, was gracious enough to sit for an e-mail interview in preparation for tonight’s big showdown with the Alabama Crimson Tide. Here is our exchange:
Dawg Sports: Let’s start with the most basic question: What won-lost record will Georgia need to compile over the final month of the regular season in order to remain a realistic contender for the NIT?
Big Apple Buckets: Even though the NIT doesn't require teams to finish over .500 anymore, I think it's important that Georgia gets a few games over that mark. With a 12-11 record with eight games remaining, I think a record of at least 17-14 going into the SEC tournament is going to be necessary. One of the benefits of that will mean at least a few more good wins.
Dawg Sports: Amazingly enough, the Bulldogs actually are thinking about their SEC Tournament seeding. How many wins in Nashville will Georgia need to feel confident of receiving an NIT bid?
Big Apple Buckets: Due to the new format of the SEC Tournament it will really depend on where Georgia is seeded. I'd definitely anticipate needing to win at least one game if they are in the #5 to #10 range, because losses in those games would probably be bad losses, given the state of the SEC this season. A 20-win season isn't a necessity for a major conference team to make the NIT anymore. What is necessary are decent wins and avoiding bad losses, especially in conference play. The state of the SEC just leaves a lot of potential landmines in the early rounds. A 1-1 showing in the conference tournament should at least put Georgia in the conversation if they have a record like I anticipate.
Dawg Sports: Georgia has games remaining against fellow NIT contenders Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Which of those three teams is it most important for the Bulldogs to beat down the stretch, and why?
Big Apple Buckets: Beating all of them is important, but Alabama currently has the best RPI of the three and thus is the best win. Tennessee though is a fellow bubble contender, so beating them has the nice benefit of helping UGA and hurting the Volunteers. I can't express how much of a benefit Georgia would get from pulling off a home upset of Kentucky. The Wildcats offer the biggest bang for Georgia's buck down the stretch.
Dawg Sports: When Georgia made the NCAA Tournament in 2011, one of the arguments for the Bulldogs’ inclusion was that they had no bad losses. This year, Georgia has lost to Iona, Mississippi State, South Florida, Southern Miss, and Youngstown State. How much will those setbacks hamper the Bulldogs’ chances of making the 2013 NIT field?
Big Apple Buckets: They certainly hurt. The Southern Miss loss isn't terrible, given the way the Eagles have gamed the RPI this season, but the others are a problem and have made it much more difficult for Georgia to get an NIT bid. The worst losses are the two at home to Mississippi St. and Youngstown St. The Bulldogs are below 200 in RPI and the Penguins aren't much better at 171st currently. That said, every NIT bubble team at this point has at least one really bad loss.
It's also worth noting that South Carolina and Vanderbilt are "must wins" in the sense that both would be bad losses. USC especially, because the Gamecocks would be another very bad loss.
Dawg Sports: Since multiple teams are vying for 32 spots, NIT bracketology is a zero-sum game; every team that gets in takes a bid that otherwise would have gone to another team. What non-SEC squads should Georgia fans be watching, and rooting for or against, in order to maximize the Bulldogs’ chances of being invited?
Big Apple Buckets: The biggest rooting interest for middle of the road major conference teams come Championship Week (or Two Weeks) are the mid-major conference champions. You want all of them to win their league whether they'd get an at-large or not. If they lose and aren't an NCAA at-large they're getting into the NIT automatically. If they lose and are an at-large the auto-bid team is dropping another team down to the top of the NIT field. Root for chalk in every mid-major tournament.
In terms of rooting against, one of the biggest things will be how some of the other middling major conference teams do in their respective tournaments, mostly because they offer an opportunity for a couple late neutral site victories. Georgia wants to pull an upset in the SEC tournament and see teams like Rutgers stumble early in the Big East.
Ultimately, the road to an NIT berth for Georgia over the next two months isn't easy. The Bulldogs' recent run has made it a possibility, but a lot of work (and some luck) is still necessary.