As Southeastern Conference play begins, so start post-season considerations. The SEC's modest profile suggests there will be fewer NCAA Tournament bids; thus a greater urgency to finish high in the standings.
For teams lacking many eye-catching victories (for example, Kentucky), a strong SEC record seems imperative, college basketball observers say.
"I'm still thinking it's probably going to take 10 or 11 conference wins for anybody to get at-large consideration, and 10 might only work for certain teams," said Jerry Palm, who compiles the Ratings Percentage Index for Collegerpi.com. "Arkansas and Tennessee top the list.
"However," Palm added in an e-mail message, "that may change as we get deeper into the season."
Mark Bradley, a columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, noted how Tennessee has established itself as a good team and Arkansas is making a national splash.
"The question is — and it's the key question for Kentucky — is whether a league so lightly regarded will draw five/six NCAA bids," Bradley wrote in an e-mail. "I'm thinking UK probably needs to finish second in the East to feel safe."
How modest is the SEC profile? Only one team — Tennessee — made this week's top 25 polls. The Vols were 25th in the coaches' poll and 15th in The Associated Press media poll.
In both polls, no other SEC team was even close to making the top 25. Arkansas had 109 points (or a distant 121 from No. 25 West Virginia) in the media poll. Arkansas' 27 points in the coaches' poll was far behind No. 25 Tennessee's 85 points.
By contrast, the Big East placed nine teams in the media poll, followed by the Atlantic Coast Conference's five teams (including Nos. 2, 3 and 4).
"There aren't a lot of quality wins in the league this year," said Jim O'Connell, long-time college basketball editor for The Associated Press.
The SEC dramatically improved its profile recently when Arkansas beat two top 10 teams (Texas and Oklahoma) and when South Carolina won at then No. 19 Baylor.
Yet Palm noted that the SEC remains No. 6 in the conference RPI standings, and it sits closer to No. 10 Conference USA than the No. 1 Big Ten.
College basketball analyst Jay Bilas of ESPN said the SEC and Kentucky are relatively substandard this season. The key word is "relatively." The league and the Cats can compete, but by their standards, it's a down season.
"I am not suggesting that the league is not competitive with other leagues," Bilas wrote in an e-mail. "It is. I use the same standard for UK. In saying that this is a 'down year' for UK, I compare this team to what you would normally expect from a Kentucky team.
"I don't think I'm breaking news by saying this is not a vintage UK team. Usually, Kentucky isn't holding up a win over West Virginia and a close loss to Louisville as résumé builders to sneak into the NCAA Tournament."
Judging by the RPI, the victory in Las Vegas over West Virginia rates as Kentucky's best so far this season.
The prospect of adding more eye-catching victories seems scarce, given six league teams had an RPI of 100 or worse. There were only three SEC teams with a top 50 RPI: Tennessee at No. 22, Florida at No. 43 and Arkansas at No. 48.
And Kentucky sits in relatively good shape given its strength of schedule (120) is the third-best among league schools. Only Tennessee (No. 23) and Ole Miss (No. 76) have stronger schedules.
"The SEC provides plenty of chances to build a tournament-worthy résumé," Bilas said. "If Kentucky wins 10 conference games, I would find it hard to fathom this team being left out of the field.