The Next Step for SEC Basketball

2017-18 saw the deepest SEC of all-time, with eight NCAA Tournament teams breaking the old conference record of six. The championship banner Tennessee and Auburn will hang is the greatest testament to the quality of their seasons.

Seven of those eight tournament teams had a favorable seed in the opening round; only Alabama was truly on the bubble. Six SEC teams won in the first round. It was in the second round when things got crazy. Kentucky, the league’s bluest blood, beat 13-seed Buffalo by 20. Florida, a six seed, lost to three seed Texas Tech by three points. Everything else? Tennessee lost to 11-seed Loyola-Chicago on a semi-miraculous bounce with three seconds to play. Alabama lost to Villanova by 23 points; Auburn lost to Clemson by 31. And Texas A&M beat two seed North Carolina by 21.

The Cats and Aggies then bowed out in the Sweet 16, leaving the league with zero teams in the Elite Eight one year after putting three in the regional finals. The Big 12 added to their claim as the nation’s best conference with three teams in the Elite Eight, followed by the ACC with two.

But while the lasting SEC memory from 2017-18 is depth, the league has also positioned itself to continue to evolve.

Three SEC teams were in the 2017-18 preseason AP poll: the usual suspects from Kentucky and Florida in the Top 10, plus Texas A&M sneaking in at #25. In the first round of Way Too Early Top 25s for 2019?

You get the idea. Behind Tennessee, Auburn, and Kentucky is a Mississippi State program looking to cash in, star-studded freshman classes at LSU and Vanderbilt, and more of the same from Florida and Texas A&M. A team like Arkansas would have been the third or fourth best in the league almost by default five years ago. Now they might not make the top ten.

As it relates to Tennessee, the league should be tougher than ever…but it should also represent the best opportunity on the Vols’ resume. Much of UT’s case this year was made by beating Purdue and almost beating Villanova and North Carolina. But what we know of the non-conference schedule for next season doesn’t have as many opportunities. Home-and-homes with Wake Forest and Georgia Tech haven’t panned out as both programs have struggled. It’s great to have the Memphis rivalry back in our lives, but I’m not sure it’ll be a resume builder in Penny Hardaway’s first season. And the Vols are in the preseason NIT next year with Kansas, Louisville, and Marquette, but only the Jayhawks will be considered a national threat in the preseason.

We’ll see who the Vols draw in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, but if the league does indeed feature five or six ranked teams throughout the season, their best work will come in conference play. You have to go back to the pre-Bruce Pearl era at Tennessee to find a time when the SEC was good enough to make or break its own teams.

It will only get harder, but the basketball will only get better. One year after showing its depth like never before, the SEC should have a chance to make its case at the top of college basketball world.

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