The things we’ve spent all year hoping were true for the SEC are about to be fully realized.
The league record for NCAA Tournament teams is six. Eight are in the most recent Bracket Matrix, and Mississippi State refuses to remove themselves from the conversation to make nine. And it shouldn’t be eight or nine sweating it out: seven of the eight teams currently in the matrix field are a top eight seed.
We began to see this last year, when the four of the league’s five tournament teams were top eight seeds. That hadn’t happened since 2007. This year, if a handful of teams stay on the right side of an 8/9 match-up, we could see twice that many be the higher seed in the first round.
The conversation sometimes drifts to, “Yeah, but there’s no elite team.” I think this is in part because the SEC’s version of elite has been a championship-caliber Kentucky or Florida team for the last decade. The last non-UK/UF team from this league to pull off a one or two seed in the NCAA Tournament was Tennessee 10 years ago. Bruce Pearl might get there again this season. And only Texas A&M two years ago has earned a three seed outside of Kentucky and Florida in this decade. The Vols still have every opportunity to join that list this season.
So no, Auburn and Tennessee won’t be confused for the best of John Calipari and Billy Donovan heading into the tournament. But what the Vols and Tigers are doing is still better than what any other SEC program has done in the last ten years. And they’re doing it in a far deeper league.
Here’s a look at the post-expansion SEC the last six years. (Note: if the formatting is weird on your phone, try viewing it in landscape.)
|Top 8 Seeds||1||2||2||2||4||7*|
|KenPom Top 25||2||3||1||3||3||3|
|KenPom Top 50||3||4||7||4||5||9|
|KenPom Top 100||9||9||11||11||12||14|
(* – projected bids from the Bracket Matrix)
When Missouri and Texas A&M joined the league in 2012-13, the SEC was at its lowest point of this century. But thanks to changes in coaching and scheduling, now in 2018 the league is at its highest point of this century.
Along with an almost-certain record for tournament bids, the basement and the middle are both significantly stronger. In 2013 it wasn’t just five teams outside the KenPom Top 100; three of them were between 197-256. Even last year, truly terrible seasons from Missouri (156 in KenPom) and LSU (172) saw both teams go 2-16 in league play. Two coaching changes later and every team in the league has at least five conference wins with three games to play.
And now the crowd is in the middle. Behind Auburn and Tennessee are six teams at 8-7 in league play, plus LSU at 7-8, plus Texas A&M at 6-9 but almost certainly still headed for the dance floor. Teams like Georgia and South Carolina should find their way to the NIT. And, for the first time, all 14 teams are in the Top 100 in KenPom.
There are still three games left, plenty of time for positioning in such a crowded field. But Tennessee has already earned tremendous praise for getting this far in such a deep league. Earning a double bye in the SEC Tournament is a significant accomplishment. The Vols and the league have much to be proud of.