It was projected to be a down year for SEC men's basketball.
That was an understatement.
Heading into Tuesday night's conference opener between No. 10 Missouri and Alabama, the league ranked ninth in conference RPI according to realtimerpi.com.
Yes— ninth — behind three of those so-called mid-major leagues. The SEC is currently looking up at the Mountain West (third), Atlantic 10 (seventh) and Missouri Valley (eighth). And the West Coast Conference is just .0063 away from stepping into the No. 9 spot.
Nine weeks into the season, only Missouri and No. 11 Florida enjoy spots in the top 25.
Far more alarming, the league as a whole owns just three wins in 16 games against ranked teams.
Since the NCAA tournament expanded from 48 to 64 teams in 1985, the SEC has earned at least four bids every year expect 1990 and 2009, when three were invited.
As of now, only Florida, Missouri and Kentucky look like sure-fire selections for the 2013 dance.
The rest of the conference?
The question remains if Tennessee (8-4) or Arkansas (9-4) can make noise. The same could be said for Alabama (8-5) and Ole Miss (11-2), but the Tide recently dropped back-to-back home games against Mercer and Tulane, and Ole Miss ranks 239 in strength of schedule.
One reason the league's profile has sunk in 2012-13? The flagship is taking on water.
Kentucky, ranked No. 3 in both polls to begin the season, is 9-4. The losses, to Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor and Louisville, are all respectable. The wins, with only one (Maryland) coming against the RPI top 150, are not.
Here's a hypothetical: What if Kentucky goes winless in its three marquee SEC games (Florida home-and-home, home vs. Missouri) and drops two or three other games to middling league teams. It's plausible the Cats could finish 22-9 or 21-10 and potentially without a top-50 RPI win.
Given the state of the conference, what NCAA tournament seed would the defending national champion draw? Eight? Nine? Ten?
Of course, the exact opposite could occur. John Calipari, the maestro, has the pieces to orchestrate a run. Among his freshmen, guard Archie Goodwin is a contender for SEC player of the year. If the Cats' latest group of kittens find their way, they're as dangerous as any SEC team.
Remember, though, there's always a chance they stray.
Balancing the league's impressive wins over Wichita State (Tennessee), Marquette (Florida), Maryland (Kentucky), Illinois and VCU (Mizzou) against its embarrassing losses would break the hinge on a seesaw.
Among the programs to earn SEC wins thus far: Elon, Troy, Alabama A&M, Loyola Chicago, Youngstown State, Winthrop, Rhode Island, Marist, Indiana State, Mercer, Iona and Southern.
Additionally, Middle Tennessee, the team that knocked UT out of last year's NIT, is 2-0 against the conference.
Contenders or pretenders?
Aided by gaudy home records against flimsy schedules, no one knows what to make of Ole Miss (11-2, 8-0 home), LSU (9-2, 8-0), South Carolina (10-3, 7-2) and Texas A&M (10-3, 8-1).
All but South Carolina are ranked in the top 100 of the RPI.
But now try to pick the best non-conference win of the whole lot. None exactly catch the eye: Ole Miss over Rutgers, LSU over Seton Hall, South Carolina over Rider or Texas A&M over Stephen F. Austin?