LITTLE ROCK — Halfway through the ninth and final SEC overtime of the day, 7-foot, 245-pound Willie Cauley-Stein dove for a loose ball and gained possession for Kentucky. During the next 2 1/2 minutes, the 12th-best free throw shooting team in the Southeastern Conference made eight straight.
Normally a team that out-talents its opponent, Kentucky won the hard way — nailed early Saturday by ESPN’s Jay Bilas, who said the Wildcats would have to be blue-collar, not blue blood, to get into the NCAA Tournament.
Another week of SEC basketball means another revision of where league teams are in the scramble for the 37 at-large berths.
Maybe it’s the two-games-per-week for seven weeks without a break, but the only constants have been Florida at one end of the spectrum and Auburn, Mississippi State, and South Carolina at the other. On the short end of 88-58 a week earlier, Kentucky is back in the NCAA talk and the OT victory over Missouri casts Arkansas as the team likely to determine the tournament fate of both the Wildcats and the Tigers:
• If Kentucky loses in Fayetteville on Saturday, the Wildcats will have to beat Florida in Lexington in the final game of the regular-season to be certain of a bid. Otherwise, the Wildcats will be 12-6 in the SEC with losses in two of their final three games.
• Missouri is already 8-6 with its only road W at Mississippi State. Experts insist the Tigers are in, but I believe they must win at Columbia, S.C., this week and then beat LSU and Arkansas in Columbia, Mo., on a Saturday-Tuesday. Missouri finishes up on the road against Tennessee, the hottest team in the league, and a home loss to the Razorbacks would be devastating.
• Also at 8-6, Arkansas is solidly in the running for an NIT bid with an outside shot at a top four seed in the SEC Tournament, important because Nos. 1-4 only have to win three games in Nashville to get the NCAA bid that goes to the tournament champion.
Other than Florida, there has been an ebb and flow to the performances of SEC teams.
Playing arguably what was the easiest league schedule, Alabama won had four in a row until losing at Baton Rouge in three overtimes after leading by 10 with less than four minutes to play. At 10-4 in the SEC, Alabama probably has to win out, including games in Gainesville and Oxford.
Speaking of Ole Miss, once 17-2 and 6-0 in the league, the Rebels lost five of seven until crushing Auburn on Saturday. At 9-5, the Rebels must have a 2-0 week and do no worse than 1-1 against Alabama and on the road vs. LSU next week.
Headed in the other direction is Tennessee, 8-6 after going four overtimes at College Station to beat the Aggies for their fifth straight. Although unlikely, a sweep of the next two weeks would include victories over Florida and Missouri and the Vols would replace Missouri as a possible fourth team from the SEC.
Available along with the SEC’s weekly schedule, PlayoffStatus.com’s projection of the final standings has Kentucky with a 42 percent chance of finishing second, followed by Alabama at 35 percent, and Ole Miss at 14 percent.
The personal view of the final standings hinges on how the Razorbacks play if they lose at Baton Rouge on Wednesday night and whether the Wildcats compete on the road the way they did in Lexington. The enthusiasm in Fayetteville, plus Kentucky’s suspect guard play vs. Arkansas’ press, can produce an Arkansas victory. In that case, Kentucky is looking at 12-6, a game behind the Alabama-Ole Miss winner next week, and under the gun to reach the SEC Tournament finals.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.