Column: SEC faces uphill climb in March

Even with increases in ranked teams from a year ago, the SEC’s record against top-25 competition this year will be working against it through the madness of March.
Graphic by Adam Cole

Last weekend was quite the cap on an incredible year for SEC basketball.

After the start of the SEC Tournament on Thursday — which included a buzzer-beating, game-winning layup by Collin Sexton to keep Alabama in the NCAA Tournament picture and the long-awaited return of Missouri’s highly touted forward Michael Porter Jr. — the SEC continued into the weekend with a conference tournament that saw upset bids from No. 9 seed Alabama and No. 6 seed Arkansas, landing both of them in the tournament semifinals.

But both teams’ runs came to an end on Saturday. Alabama fell to John Calipari’s talented No. 4-seed Kentucky squad, and Arkansas lost to Rick Barnes’ No. 2 seed Tennessee team, a unit that’s defied expectations after being projected to finish in the bottom of the conference in preseason.

The fun didn’t stop on Saturday, however. The Wildcats went on to defeat the Volunteers for their fourth consecutive conference tournament title on Sunday, but perhaps the cherry on top came later that day, when the SEC landed eight teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament. It’s the second-highest total from any conference in the tournament this season and a conference record for the SEC.

All of the postseason activity has certainly emphasized it, but in a conference that’s filled with football schools, this has been one of the best seasons for men’s basketball in a long time. The SEC finished the regular season with four teams in the AP Poll with two other teams receiving votes, eight teams in the RPI top 50 and six in the BPI top 50.

Comparing this to a season ago, when the SEC finished the regular season with two top-25 teams, five teams in both the RPI and BPI top 50s and just five teams in the NCAA Tournament, it shows a significant ascension for the conference in the world of Division I basketball.

It should also be noted that two more teams than last year finished the regular season above .500, pushing that total from 10 teams a season ago to 12 this year. However, the number of teams above .500 in conference record has dropped by one from a year ago. That’s not a huge shift, but it shows an increase in conference competition that’s made for a lot of interesting scenarios throughout the season.

While the conference standings faced a lot of different scenarios throughout the regular season, there may not be a tougher scenario for the conference than this year’s NCAA Tournament.

The only SEC team that isn’t the higher seed in its round of 64 matchup is No. 9 Alabama, but assuming all SEC teams make the round of 32 and play the highest seed possible in those matchups, only No. 3 Tennessee and No. 4 Auburn would definitely be the higher seed in the SEC’s round of 32 games.

On top of that, the eight SEC teams playing in the tournament this season are a combined 21-25 against top-25 competition. That means that when facing a top-25 team, or a No. 4 or higher seed in NCAA Tournament equivalents, the SEC’s tournament-caliber teams come out winning 45.7 percent of the time. That’s a little under half of their games against top competition. That’s not so bad, right?

Well, looking at this year’s bracket, that may be pretty bad.

Of the eight SEC teams in the tournament, six of them are poised to play a top-4 seed in the first two rounds of the tournament. This includes No. 5 seed Kentucky — a team that was 0-4 against top-25 teams this year — possibly playing DeAndre Ayton and the No. 4 Arizona Wildcats in the Round of 32. Arizona is 9-3 over its last 12 games.

Of the six teams poised to play a top-4 seed in the tournament’s first two rounds, four are in position to play a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the round of 32, with potential matchups of No. 8 Missouri and No. 1 Xavier, No. 9 Alabama and No. 1 Villanova, No. 7 Arkansas and No. 2 Purdue and No. 7 Texas A&M and No. 2 North Carolina.

If all six of those teams find their way into the likely scenarios and only 45.7 percent of them come out with a win, at least three teams go home and the SEC has over a third of its chances at a national championship gone just days into the tournament.

With all that being said, the month of March has seen a lot of things from college basketball, and that includes cold teams getting hot and hot teams going cold. After conference tournament runs from teams like the Crimson Tide and the Razorbacks, things may bode better than expected for the SEC. It’s also important to note that six of the eight SEC teams in the tournament are above .500 in their last 12 games.

Crazier things have happened. But statistically, the odds are against the SEC heading into the Madness.

Edited by Joe Noser |

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