You can use KenPom, RPI, and any number of other metrics to make your argument, but ultimately it’s the selection committee who sets the table. The NCAA Tournament itself isn’t always the best measure of a team’s success - only one team doesn’t lose, and you don’t want to write off 30+ games of work because your team lost at the buzzer in the first weekend or to another really good team the second - but the bracket becomes the best indicator of where everyone stood before the season turns into win-or-go-home.
The SEC put five teams in the field this year, tied with 2015 and 2011 for the most since Georgia’s tornado tournament run made for six in 2008. But more than simply how many teams made the bracket, where those teams are seeded tells a fuller story. And according to the bracket, this is the strongest SEC since 2006.
Kentucky (2), Florida (4), South Carolina (7), and Arkansas (8) are all the higher seed in the first round, and Vanderbilt (9) just missed. This is the first time since 2007 the league has had four teams seeded 1-8, and that year things were more top-heavy with defending champion Florida at 1 then Tennessee (5), Vanderbilt (6), and Kentucky (8). You have to go back to the previous year to find something definitively better than 2017. In 2006 the SEC put six teams in the field with no bid-stealing tournament champion, including five seeded 1-8 and three seeded 1-4 (Pearl’s first Tennessee team at 2, eventual champion Florida at 3, Final Four bound LSU at 4).
If the league flames out in the first round you’ll see plenty of #SECBasketballFever/#itjustmeansmore jokes. This whole argument won’t hold much weight in the national conversation if South Carolina, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt go 0-3 in essentially toss-up games and we’re left with Kentucky and Florida as usual (and I’ve got ETSU over the Gators in my bracket). But the folks at Sports Radio WNML point out the SEC has been .500 or better in the last six NCAA Tournaments.
The Cats and Gators will always be around, but in the SEC’s best years the league isn’t carried by those two. In fact, only three times in the last 12 years have Kentucky and Florida been the SEC’s two highest seeds. The conference needs balance to improve its overall profile, and one year after putting just three teams in the field (and one in Dayton) the SEC put its strongest overall product in more than a decade on the floor.
This will be true no matter what happens this weekend. But for the rest of the college basketball world to pay attention to it, we need a strong first round and ideally more than Kentucky and Florida to make it through to the Sweet 16. We also haven’t seen three SEC teams in the Sweet 16 since
2007 (correction: 2014 when Kentucky and Florida made it and the Vols came out of Dayton to make it) and before that 2007, when Florida won the title and both Tennessee and Vanderbilt (and the Big 12 version of Texas A&M) were one point away from the Elite Eight. Anybody taking South Carolina, Arkansas, or Vanderbilt to make the second weekend?
Here’s the full data on seeding for SEC teams since 2006 (apologies for the non-smartphone-friendly formatting):
SEC Seeds in the NCAA Tournament
|South Carolina||7||Vanderbilt||11||LSU||9||Tennessee||11||Ole Miss||12|
|Florida||7||Vanderbilt||5||Tennessee||6||Miss. State||13||Miss. State||8|