By RICHARD CHEEKS
The non-conference schedules are now in the book , and as the teams line up to begin the SEC wars, Florida has separated itself from the pack, and a trio of teams, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Missouri, are in that second tier that will provide the only serious challenges to the Gators in 2013. If the former 16 game SEC format that included 8 road trips for each team was difficult to navigate without picking up unexpected losses, the addition of two more games, and one more SEC road trip makes survival of the SEC wars more difficult than it has perhaps ever been. In addition to the length of the SEC schedule, the other major change that league expansion brings is the addition of a new first round for the SEC tournament on Wednesday in which the bottom 4 finishers must play for the right the 5th and 6th place teams on Thursday.
In the past, the queries have been about who would earn those precious first round byes (now 2 round byes), and now the chatter will also concern who will fail to get that important new first round bye into Thursday. As the teams stand today, the favorites for the top 4 spots have stepped forward with their play. Similarly, the favorites to pull the heavy duty of Wednesday tournament action have also emerged, e.g. George, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and South Carolina. That leaves Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn, and Alabama to play with the two Wednesday winners for the right to advance to Friday’s quarterfinal round against the top 4 teams.
When these adjusted NGE values are applied to the entire SEC Season, the following records result for the 14 league teams: Florida 18-0, Kentucky 15-3, Mississippi 15-3, Missouri 13-5, Arkansas 10-8, Tennessee 9-9, LSU 8-10, Texas A&M 8-10, Auburn 8-10, Alabama 7-11, Georgia 5-13, Vanderbilt 4-14, Mississippi State 3-15 and South Carolina 3-15.
For those that may not recall, at this time last season, the same forecast placed the Cats in the driver’s seat for the SEC race. At that time, the NGE model projected a 15-1 record for the Cats, and I suggested that the Cats had a possibility of running the table with a 16-0 SEC season. The Cats indeed outperformed the model’s projections by sweeping the home and home with Florida and avoiding the upset bug during the regular season.
Upsets! Upsets! Upsets! (Like Tora, Tora, Tora)
We read and hear so much talk about upsets. Upsets are a normal part of sporting competition, and occur due to variability of human performance levels. Last year, there were 5,405 D1 basketball games, and in those games, the team with the lower Net Game Efficiency won 1,312 times, 24.3% of all games. While there is always so much talk about the hazards of upsets over the course of an SEC season, the data shows that the SEC upset rate has been well below the national average. Last year, there were 96 SEC games in the regular season, and 11 games during the SEC Tournament. Of the 107 games, there were 21 upsets. Those 21 upsets consisted of 8 games in which an underdog home team won the game, 9 games in which an underdog visiting team won the game, and 4 games on the neutral court of the SEC Tournament. The SEC Upset Rate in 2012 was “only” 19.6%. This year there will be 126 regular season and 13 tournament SEC games, and there will be upsets, to be sure. However, based on the historical conference upset rate, I would expect between 25 and 30 upsets.
Please understand that I understand that the upsets will play a role in the final standings. If there are no upsets, then the standings I list above would occur, and there would be truly no reason to even play the season. However, most teams will experience their upsets on each side of the upset equation, and most teams will finish the season within a +/- 1 game of the projected conference records. A few teams will move up or down the standings due to a lopsided upset impact upon their record. For example, last year, Florida and Alabama finished 4 and 5 games below the pre-season forecast, while Tennessee and Mississippi each finished 4 games above the pre-season forecast. The other 8 teams were within 1 game either way from the pre-season forecast. Who will be the upset winners and losers in 2013?
Home Court Advantage! We also read and hear about how difficult it is to win on the road in the SEC. Last year in the SEC regular season’s 96 games, the just under 70%, with the home team winning 67 of the 96 games. This year, I can’t imagine why the road teams would fare any better than the 2012 road performance levels, so the home team will win about 88 to 93 of the 126 regular season SEC games. Last year, Kentucky was the only SEC team to traverse the conference season without a home court loss, and South Carolina and Auburn were the only teams to not earn a single SEC road win. The forecast for 2013 projected Florida as the only team likely to finish undefeated at home, and Georgia, Vanderbilt, Auburn, South Carolina, and Mississippi State are projected as winless on the SEC road.
What about the Kentucky outlook for the 18 game SEC season? The Cats should be the underdog three times, at Florida (7 ½ points) and Mississippi (1 ½ points), and at Rupp against Florida (1 ½ points). The Cats should be favored in every other game. The range of these pre-game margins should vary from single digits on the road at Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas A&M to 20 or more points at Rupp against Texas A&M, Auburn, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Mississippi State. In early March, the Cats’ performance in the seven games with single digit predicted margins will measure the success of the 2013 SEC Season for the Cats.