The Mercer Bears beat Florida Gulf Coast, recently known as Dunk City, to win the Atlantic Sun tournament Sunday. The automatic bid means that Mercer will grace the NCAA field for the first time since 1985, when it was led by Sam Mitchell and when the Bears were part of an extraordinary subregional at the old Omni.
Of the eight teams playing on that Georgia court that March Friday, three were from, ahem, Georgia. In the afternoon session, Georgia beat Wichita State, which was led by Xavier McDaniel. In the long day’s nightcap, Mercer was beaten by Georgia Tech. (Georgia would lose to Illinois in Round 2; Tech would beat Syracuse.) And now we ask: Can the Peach State send three teams to this particular Big Dance?
Short answer: Yes, it could.
Georgia State has to win the Sun Belt tournament, which will be held this week in New Orleans. But the Panthers were 17-1 in conference play and just beat Western Kentucky, which finished a distant second in the league, by 18 points Saturday. Yes, that game was played at the GSU Sports Arena, and yes, strange things can happen in conference tournaments — Mercer had a tougher time beating USC Upstate in the A-Sun semis in Macon than it did in the final at FGCU — but still: It will be a major upset if the Panthers don’t prevail.
Which brings us to Georgia. The Bulldogs tied Kentucky for the second-best record in SEC play, and given that the Wildcats entered the season ranked No. 1 in the nation you’d have guessed that running even with the the Big Blue would stand a team in good stead, Big Dance-wise. But Georgia almost surely has to beat Kentucky in the SEC semis to have a chance at gaining an at-large berth — the Bulldogs’ RPI of 70 is still high for a bubble aspirant — and just to be safe UGA needs to win the tournament.
Which, given that Florida is now ranked No. 1 in the land and hasn’t lost to an SEC team this season, won’t be easy. But Florida will have little at stake in the Georgia Dome. It’s apt to be the No. 1 overall seed no matter what, and motivation, or the lack thereof, becomes a big deal in league tournaments.
Never before had an SEC team gone 18-0. But it’s worth noting that the 17-1 Kentucky team of 1996 and the 16-0 Wildcats of 2012 would both lose in the SEC final before going on to win NCAA titles, and the 16-0 Wildcats of 2003, which were ranked No. 1 in the nation, were pushed to the limit by Mississippi State in the conference title game. (That Kentucky team would be upset by Marquette and Dwyane Wade’s triple double in an NCAA regional final.)
It could be that Florida is too good to lose to anybody this week, but history suggests that great SEC teams are at their most vulnerable in this event. (True, the back-to-back NCAA champion Gators of 2006 and 2007 both won their SEC tournaments.) Given that Georgia is playing very well and that Kentucky demonstrably is not, you have to think the Bulldogs, who earned a bye into the quarterfinals, stand a good chance of playing for the title Sunday.