Bob Weltlich, sitting behind the far basket at the Scottrade Center, had a clear view of Kassius Robertson’s 3-point attempt that went long, securing Georgia’s 62-60 upset of Missouri in the second round of the SEC tournament.
“It’s been a big year for the SEC,” Weltlich said.
Weltlich was the head coach at Ole Miss from 1976-82. A member of the NIT selection committee, he’s now in charge of scouting the SEC for potential field members. His feel for the league is strong.
Weltlich on Thursday watched four games, from the Alabama-Texas A&M thriller to UGA’s shocker to South Carolina’s failed comeback attempt against Arkansas.
The SEC in 2016-17 put five teams in the NCAA tournament and another three in the NIT. There’s a great chance the league tops those numbers this season.
“I think it’s maybe the most competitive year from top to bottom that there’s been since I can remember,” Weltlich said. “How many great teams, I don’t know, because I don’t know if there’s a lot of great teams in college basketball right now. But they’re obviously going to be very well-represented in both tournaments.”
Weltlich can’t speak specifically to South Carolina’s NIT chances, but he did confirm the Gamecocks (17-16) are being considered for the 32-team field. Coach Frank Martin made his team’s case after the Arkansas loss, citing Carolina’s RPI, strength of schedule and quality wins.
John Templon has been making NIT bracket projections on his website – NYCBuckets.com – for a decade. Early Friday morning, he slid USC to a No. 4 seed.
“I think they’re pretty safely in,” Templon said by phone Friday morning.
The confidence comes from Carolina’s four “Quadrant 1” wins. The quadrant system is new to both the NCAA tournament and NIT selection committees this season. Teams earn a Quadrant 1 win – and boost their résumé – when they beat a team RPI ranked 1-30 at home, a team RPI ranked 1-50 at a neutral site or a team RPI ranked 1-75 on the road. The Gamecocks racked up such victories against Georgia (road), Kentucky (home), Florida (road) and Auburn (home).
“They also have fewer bad losses than most everyone in the field around them,” Templon said. “And I think, actually, one of their losses just moved up to a Quadrant 2 loss due to the SEC tournament results.
“I feel like they’re going to end up getting in. And it’s not unprecedented for a team that’s 17-16 overall to get in.”
The NIT does hand out automatic bids to those mid-major teams that win their regular season conference title, but fail to win their conference tournament title. As of Friday afternoon, six teams – Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun), UNC Asheville (Big South), Northern Kentucky (Horizon), Wagner (Northeast Conference), Rider (MAAC) and Middle Tennessee (Conference USA – have been invited because of that rule.
Middle Tennessee (24-7) could free up an NIT spot should it get an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
“Some of those (NIT) bubble teams are going to get dropped out of the bracket because there’s going to be some automatic bids,” Templon said, “but I don’t think South Carolina has to worry about that.”
Templon expects nine to 10 automatic NIT bids this season, which, he said, about hits the yearly average.
USC will purely be judged on its current profile. Being a Power 5 program a year removed from a Final Four run won’t increase its NIT chances, Weltlich said.
“Every year’s a new year,” Weltlich said. “That’s what we try to avoid, the so-called name-brand programs that people identify with. We’re a tournament that, after the 68 that are selected, we then pick and usually end up with teams that could have very easily been in the NCAA tournament and probably played well in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s just a case of getting the best teams available.”
In Templon’s mind, that includes the Gamecocks. A No. 4 seed means a first round home game. That, Templon said, is the only thing that could change for USC between now and Sunday night’s announcement.
“I feel like there’s enough there where they’ll be considered really strongly,” Templon said. “I feel pretty comfortable about having them in the field. There aren’t a ton of teams that have better résumés than South Carolina that are below them. So I feel pretty good about them.”