Over the last few years, the SEC has felt right at home in the NCAA Tournament.
In the 2007 season, Florida cut down the nets for the second time in as many years. Tennessee and Vanderbilt joined them in the Sweet 16—and if the refs hadn't swallowed their whistles on a Jeff Green travel, Vandy would have gone on to the Elite Eight—perhaps further.
In 2006, two SEC teams made it all the way to the Final Four. Florida shocked the tourney field by winning their first National Championship as a three seed, and LSU fell one win short of an All-SEC Championship game.
This season, two SEC teams are back in the Final Four—except it’s in the NIT. And those two schools—Florida and Ole Miss—are the only SEC teams still alive.
That’s how bad the SEC was this year.
For some inexplicable reason, the selection committee handed out six invitations to SEC teams, despite some clear signs of the conference’s weakness.
Let’s take a look at how the teams fared in the tournament.
After winning only four games in conference play, Georgia ran through the SEC tourney and earned an automatic spot in the Dance. After jumping out on the Xavier early, the Bulldogs eventually ran out of gas and the Musketeers prevailed.
When a cellar dweller dominates a conference tournament (including a win over the conference’s second best team literally six hours after dispatching the conference’s third best team), something strange is going on.
No one in the country, Georgia fans included, considered this team tournament worthy. And the committee's worst nightmare came true when Dennis Felton raised that trophy over his head.
These kids played hard, but in reality, they had no business being in the tournament. Third best in the SEC, the Cats were ousted by Marquette, who tied for fifth in the Big East.
Other than a win over Tennessee, Kentucky’s resume was absurdly mediocre.
After sliding by an average Oregon team in the first round, the Bulldogs gave Memphis a stiff test, challenging them late into the game. Miss. State was physically the toughest SEC team this year, but the Bulldogs didn’t have enough offensive consistency.
Given a generous four seed, the Commodores were crushed by Siena, a 13 seed and winners of the MAAC conference. Vandy is still trying to win a game outside of Nashville.
(As a side note, it would have been nice to actually see Vanderbilt’s or MSU’s first round game. However, CBS thought I would want to see North Carolina demolish a 16 seed by 40 points while simultaneously listening to Billy Packer gush about Tyler Hansbrough for two hours.
When UNC hit the century mark with five minutes left, did it occur to CBS to perhaps change games? But I digress…)
The Hogs got past the downward-spiraling Indiana Hoosiers in the opening round, but their effort against UNC made them look foolish. The game was over by halftime, when Arkansas trailed 51-26.
At 9-7 in the conference, including some awful losses to the bottom-feeders, this came as no surprise. If the Hogs didn’t upset Tennessee by one point in the SEC tournament, they likely would have wound up in the NIT.
The Vols were clearly the class of the SEC, dominating most games while only suffering two close road losses. They were also the only team to take down Memphis during the regular season.
But Tennessee never looked like itself in the tournament—and another Big East representative, Louisville, pounded the Vols for another earlier-than-expected exit.
Tennessee was the SEC’s only legitimate chance at a deep run.
Looking ahead to next season:
Staying at the Top
Tennessee. The Vols return a bunch, but they have to find a way to get out of the Sweet 16. Let’s hope Vol fans don’t get impatient with the coach who made them relevant for the first time.
The "Dark Horse”
Mississippi State. Their solid play is hardly a secret anymore, but the Bulldogs don’t seem to get the respect they should. Despite losing two of their top three scorers, I see Rick Stansbury making this team even tougher to beat next year.
On the Rise
Florida and Ole Miss, who both relied on a ton of young players this season. Even though it’s the NIT, their successful tournament experience should give these squads confidence heading into next year.
Talented, But in Need of a Coach
LSU and South Carolina. Both of these teams have enough talent to compete.
The right coach could catapult either one (or both) to become contenders. The wrong coach could set them back another few years.
Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas. All lose major scoring production. They will need incoming classes to contribute right away.
Still Not There
Georgia and Alabama. Both have good players, but it looks like both would benefit from a coaching change.