February 22, 2023 

‘We’re talking about dancing’: The fight for the middle of the SEC

Handicapping Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi State's NCAA chances

During February in Starkville, Whitney Houston’s “Dance With Somebody” plays frequently. Just weeks away from the SEC Tournament, first-year Mississippi State Head Coach Sam Purcell uses the song as an anthem.

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“We’re talking about dancing, and I’ve done this for almost 20 years, and there’s no better feeling when you do college basketball than the opportunity for March. I love it,” Purcell told The Next.

As of Tuesday, ESPN’s bracketology named four SEC teams “on the bubble” of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, and of these teams, three are tied at 19 season wins Georgia, Mississippi State, and Arkansas. Missouri, with 17 wins, is the final team “on the bubble.”

In NET rankings, Georgia stacks up at #36, Mississippi State #37, and Arkansas #47.

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And so, while the immediate fight is who will win the middle of the SEC pack, the larger postseason implications are far more significant, and the opportunities of the NCAA tournament seem to be ever-present in the minds of coaches and fans.

These three teams have varied stories, but all are fighting for the same chance to compete in the Holy Grail, and with two games remaining a piece in the regular season, anything could happen in the SEC.


Mike Neighbors’ squad, which was once nationally ranked, has a decline in the past month, losing seven of their last nine games. They currently sit 8th in the conference with a 6-8 season in the SEC. However, in mid-January they sat at #3 or #4 in the conference. Since then, they have lost to basically every team in the top half of the SEC and even a loss to #12 Vanderbilt. 

After their most recent loss against Georgia, Neighbors chalked their losses up to a loss of confidence and a difficult SEC schedule, particularly in the middle, explaining that he expected his team to be losing to teams like these. However, he’s hyper-aware of what it means for NCAA bracketing.

“But also look at all the other teams that are down there around us in the bubble, right? We’re all very similar. So it’s gonna be really interesting to see how [the committee will] separate,” Neighbors said.

And although Arkansas may not be a surprise to Neighbors, if the once-ranked Hogs miss qualifying for March Madness for the first time since 2020, it will be a surprise to onlookers. 

Mississippi State

Despite some tough pre-season losses, Mississippi State has been even-keeled in their conference season. They’ve lost to top-five teams, never reached above the #6 rank in the SEC, but even snuck in a solid OT upset over Tennessee. They currently sit #6 in the SEC with an 8-6 conference record.

It’s Purcell’s first year at the helm, and an NCAA appearance would be exceeding expectations for a team with plenty of turnover.

“You gotta embrace it. You gotta bring it. You can’t be scared of life,” Purcell told The Next about being on the NCAA bubble. “The fact that you’re talking about Mississippi State basketball in year one is everything I want. I want to be the discussion. My team wants to be the discussion. Let’s bring it.”

Purcell’s enthusiasm for the postseason is infectious. Unlike Arkansas, this is a team that seems to be playing above expectations rather than disappointing an NCAA streak like Georgia or Arkansas.

These two teams have some of their most important tests of the season on Thursday, facing up against each other in Starkville at 9 p.m.. The Hogs and Bulldogs are battling for the middle of the SEC, and a March Madness spot, and whoever comes out on top Thursday could be the decider of that fate.


Georgia has had ups and downs over the season but has hit their stride since late January. They currently sit #7 in the SEC with an 8-6 conference record. They have been particularly dominant against these other teams in the middle, nearly doubling MSU on January 19 and beating Arkansas by 23 on Sunday. And although Coach Abe has said they take one game at a time, she acknowledged the win over Arkansas was a serious boost in the NET.

They finish out the regular reasons with a matchup against Auburn they are likely to win if they stay focused and then their finale is against #1 South Carolina. The Dawgs would pull off a serious upset to beat the Gamecocks, but just a couple of weeks ago, they almost beat LSU and only lost in an overtime battle, so their ability to overachieve is proven.

And Coach Abe says that the seniors on her team are leading the postseason push.

“The seniors that we have, they really want to keep playing for as long as possible,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “Because I don’t know how anybody’s gonna say bye… I’ve learned that a long time ago. Either seniors play to win right now or they’re getting ready for spring break. And we have seniors that want to play.”

Although anything could happen, Georgia is the most likely NCAA tournament lock.

And despite these three teams’ similar records, where they are on their season journeys couldn’t be more different: Arkansas seems to be on the downswing, Mississippi has stayed consistent, and Georgia is on an upward trajectory. 

However, in the final games of this competitive conference, anything could happen in the fight for the middle of the SEC, and the dance for postseason rankings is on.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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