What Will It Take for the Georgia Bulldogs to Earn That Elusive NIT Pick?

According to the basketball postseason projections posted in the aftermath of Georgia’s loss to Arkansas, the Red and Black are in good, but not great, shape for the NIT. Although DRatings sees the Bulldogs as a four seed, John Templon has Georgia as a five seed, as does Bracketball. Brad-ketology views the Fox Hounds as a six seed, and so does Jason Wells. Meanwhile, Tyler Dawgden thinks we still have work to do to make the National Invitational Tournament. Where, then, do we stand?

Last year, three SEC teams attended the NIT: Alabama (21-12) and Kentucky (21-11) were one seeds, and Tennessee (20-12) was a two seed. The year before, there were four: Tennessee (18-14) was a one seed, Ole Miss (20-13) was a two seed, Mississippi State (21-11) was a four seed, and LSU (18-14) was a six seed. 2011 saw just a pair of SEC squads make the field, one seed Alabama (21-11) and five seed Ole Miss (20-13).

At 16-12 with at least three games remaining, Georgia is flirting with the range, record-wise, in which previous SEC entrants into the NIT recently have fallen. In the last three seasons, the average Southeastern Conference club that qualified for a shot at ending the season in Madison Square Garden had 20.0 wins and 12.3 losses.

To finish with fewer than 13 losses, Georgia would have to run the table, win the SEC Tournament, and claim a bid to the Big Dance. While stranger things certainly have happened, that definitely wouldn’t be the way to bet. Likewise, if the third-place Fox Hounds earn a double-bye in the conference tournament, a 20-win season would require either winning two more in the regular season and playing on Sunday in the SEC Tournament or winning one more in the regular season and winning on Sunday in the SEC Tournament.

If past is prologue, therefore, the Bulldogs’ margin for error is virtually nonexistent. Only two SEC teams have been invited to the NIT in the last three years with fewer than 20 wins, and both boasted (provided such a record is anything about which to boast) 18-14 ledgers. In 2012, the Volunteers finished the regular season with a 10-6 league mark---identical to Georgia’s conference record right now---and had tight losses to top ten teams Duke, Kentucky, and Memphis, as well as victories over top 15 teams Connecticut and Florida (twice), to bolster the Big Orange’s postseason resume.

Thus, any comfort to be taken by the Bulldog faithful must come from the 2012 Bayou Bengals, who entered the NIT with an 18-14 record that included a 7-9 mark in conference play, no wins over then-ranked opponents after December 19, three straight losses to end the regular season, and a second-round exit from the SEC Tournament. In their last 17 regular-season outings, those Tigers went 7-10 as their RPI dropped from 58 in week eight to 68 in week 17 before settling in the mid-80s.

Georgia, which will finish with a winning regular-season record in conference play and has emerged victorious from six of the Classic City Canines’ last eight contests, had to come a long way to arrive at a comparable place, breaking the top 300 in RPI in week eight, the top 200 in week eleven, and the top 100 in week 15. The Red and Black’s RPI now stands in the mid-80s, about smack-dab where the Bayou Bengals’ did two years ago.

All that being the case, the evidence strongly suggests that an 18-14 ledger is the bare minimum the Hoop Dogs must achieve in order to have a shot at the NIT. Last year, neither Arkansas (19-13 overall, 10-8 in conference, 99 final RPI) nor LSU (19-12 overall, 9-9 in conference, 92 final RPI) received a postseason bid. As a practical matter, this means the Red and Black at least would have to beat Mississippi State at home on Wednesday, lose to Louisiana State in Baton Rouge on Saturday, win the Red and Black’s first game in Atlanta, and lose their second game in the City Too Busy to Hate.

The Classic City Canines’ next game against the Magnolia State Mongrels is an absolute must-win; lose that one, and "tornado time, take two" would be required to catapult the Red and Black into a bracket beyond the conference tournament. A victory over the Pelican State Panthers would be nice, but a road win appears unlikely at this juncture, and Georgia cannot afford a one-and-done run in the league tourney. At this point, every game is a big game, and the bubble could burst at any step along the way, even if all goes according to expectations. Anything worse than a 2-2 finish, and even the NIT will be out of reach; even if the most likely scenario plays out, these Bulldogs are right on the edge of postseason play, and that decision still could go either way.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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