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The Case for SEC Basketball

The best and most balanced SEC since expansion should help the Vols and anyone else from the league still on the bubble on Selection Sunday.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a look at what every current SEC team has done since 2000 in three major categories: NCAA Tournament appearances, Sweet 16 appearances, and regular season conference titles (including ties):

SEC Basketball 2000-Present

Team NCAA's Sweet 16's Conf. Titles
Team NCAA's Sweet 16's Conf. Titles
Kentucky 15 9 8
Florida 13 7 6
Tennessee 9 5 2
Missouri 9 2 0
Texas A&M 7 2 1
Vanderbilt 7 2 0
LSU 6 2 3
Alabama 6 1 1
Mississippi St. 6 0 1
Arkansas 6 0 1
Georgia 5 0 0
Ole Miss 4 1 0
Auburn 2 1 0
South Carolina 1 0 0

Including Missouri and Texas A&M, current SEC teams have made 96 NCAA Tournament appearances in 17 years. That’s 5.6 bids per year for the league. But since expanding to 14 teams in 2013, the SEC has received only three, three, five, and three bids. You have to go back to 2008 to find the last time the SEC received six bids.

This year the league beefed up its non-conference scheduling, earning the highest conference rating in opponent RPI. In Ken Pomeroy’s ratings the SEC has six teams in the Top 30 in overall strength of schedule, led by Tennessee at number nine. The ACC and Big 12 are at the front of just about every college basketball conversation this year, but the SEC’s strength of schedule in and out of conference will stand up to any other league. And the SEC split with the Big 12 in their challenge, despite South Carolina not appearing in it this year.

Scheduling up has increased the league’s reputation, but so too has the arrival of a number of new coaches in the last three years. Right now LSU and Missouri are at the bottom, but historically they’re both top-half programs in this league and should be one hire away from climbing the ladder again. But consider the difference a coaching upgrade has made at South Carolina and looks to be on its way to making at Mississippi State. Bruce Pearl may not be winning the way he did in Knoxville, but Auburn hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2003 and the NIT since 2009. This season is already a clear sign of progress for many of the league’s traditionally lower-tier teams.

Tougher schedules throughout and a much higher floor has strengthened the SEC as a whole. Here’s a look at how every team finished in KenPom since expansion to 14 teams in 2013:

SEC Ken Pomeroy Ratings 2013-2017

KenPom 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
KenPom 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
1st 2 3 1 6 5
2nd 25 10 29 18 7
3rd 33 13 34 25 29
4th 55 44 35 35 42
5th 63 59 36 58 51
6th 73 70 46 71 52
7th 80 78 49 73 56
8th 95 83 54 77 61
9th 97 86 55 78 62
10th 103 109 63 81 74
11th 114 111 90 96 87
12th 197 112 139 103 94
13th 209 122 160 160 165
14th 255 205 192 189 166
Average 100.1 78.9 70.2 76.4 67.9

A few narrative thoughts on each of those years:

  • 2017: Florida & Kentucky Top 10, South Carolina at 29, six teams between 42-62. Twelve teams in the Top 100, LSU at the bottom at 165.
  • 2016: Kentucky & Texas A&M Top 20, Vanderbilt at 25, Florida at 35, South Carolina at 58. Five teams between 71-81. Eleven teams in the Top 100, Auburn at the bottom at 189.
  • 2015: Kentucky (#1) as only Top 25 team, four teams between 29-36, four more between 46-55. Eleven teams in the Top 100, Missouri at the bottom at 192.
  • 2014: Three teams in the Top 15, next three teams between 44-70. Nine teams in the Top 100, Mississippi State at the bottom at 205.
  • 2013: Florida (#2) as only Top 20 team, Missouri and Ole Miss at 25 & 33, next four teams from 55-80. Nine teams in the Top 100, Mississippi State at the bottom at 255.

The SEC was pretty solid in 2015 and did get five teams in the tournament, but Kentucky’s undefeated season overshadowed everything else happening in league play. But 2017 is still a stronger year overall for the league on paper, with its Top 12 teams all in the KenPom Top 100 right now.

The SEC standings fall in line as well: Florida and Kentucky are battling for the league title, South Carolina is next, and then you’ve got nine teams between 9-5 and 5-9. There have been no free wins among this group of Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt. Each of these teams is good enough to beat the others on any given night, and two-thirds of them can still entertain NCAA Tournament possibilities if they get hot this week and next.

With the league’s profile and overall strength increasing, it would be a shame if it didn’t get at least five bids this year. The SEC also has a chance to benefit from increased separation between the power conferences and mid-majors this year, as ESPN Bubble Watch guru Eamonn Brennan emphasized over the weekend.

In Sunday’s Bracket Matrix update only your choice of Wichita State or Illinois State (assuming one of them wins the Missouri Valley Tournament) and Houston are even close to either side of the cut line from mid-major world. That means the Vols and other SEC teams are most likely to be going head-to-head with other major conference options, and right now that’s most likely to come from the ACC.

Bracketologists are so in love with this league, right now aside from the nine teams they’ve put in the field in the Bracket Matrix, the first three out above Tennessee are also from the ACC: Clemson (4-10 in ACC play!), Wake Forest (6-9!), and Georgia Tech (lost to Tennessee by 23!).

And this is what it might come down to: does the selection committee like the 5th/6th best teams in the SEC more than the 10th/11th best teams in the ACC?

It’s an interesting argument, but one in which it’s important to remember this is a stronger SEC than we’ve seen at any point since expansion. And that should help a team like Tennessee if it finds itself still in the conversation in three weeks.