Since the SEC expanded in 2012-13 and went to an 18-game schedule, here are your champions:
- 2013: Florida wins at 14-4, three others at 12-6
- 2014: Florida goes undefeated at 18-0, two others 12-6
- 2015: Kentucky goes undefeated at 18-0, Arkansas 13-5
- 2016: Texas A&M and Kentucky split at 13-5
- 2017: Kentucky wins at 16-2, Florida 14-4
- 2018: Tennessee and Auburn split at 13-5
We’ve never seen three teams win at least 14 games, which is where things sit right now. If Kentucky beats Florida on Saturday, that’s three teams with at least 15 wins. And if the Vols win at Auburn and LSU beats 0-17 Vanderbilt (which we’ve also never seen on the other end of the spectrum), the league title will be shared at 16-2.
There are plenty of questions about Will Wade at the moment, including whether the LSU administration wants the image of him on a ladder cutting down nets if/when the Tigers beat Vanderbilt Saturday night. As the Vols can only control the Vols, we’ll focus on Auburn and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But it’s worth pointing out how amazing a 16-2 run through the SEC would be, even if it ends with an unprecedented tie for the title.
What’s the Simplest Path to a No. 1 Seed?
In Thursday’s Bracket Matrix, Virginia and Duke are unanimous No. 1 seeds in the 90 brackets in the pool; Gonzaga is just behind with an average seed of 1.07. And Tennessee is currently the fourth No. 1 seed with an average seed of 1.38, a good bit ahead of Kentucky (1.81) and North Carolina (1.83).
If Tennessee wins at Auburn and Duke wins at Chapel Hill, that could do it. There are various thoughts on if you want Duke or Carolina to prevail, but if we’re looking for simplicity, that includes giving up on the notion that Tennessee could be seeded higher than both Duke and UNC and back atop the Louisville region. A North Carolina win on Saturday could introduce that possibility, giving both Duke and Carolina five losses to Tennessee’s three. But given Tennessee’s history with the selection committee and the names on the front of the jersey, I’m not sure I like those odds. Could the selection committee put three ACC teams on the top line? Probably not, but when a program with zero Final Fours under its belt is the alternative, it makes me nervous.
In the last three years, the average No. 1 seed has 4.67 losses on Selection Sunday. So a Tennessee team at 28-3 (16-2), if it goes through Auburn, should feel pretty good about its chances heading to the SEC Tournament. But we also have a bit of institutional memory here: in 2008 the Vols went to the SEC Tournament at 28-3 (14-2), lost by a point in the semifinals post-tornado, and were given a No. 2 seed despite being No. 1 in RPI. It’s one of the better what-if’s in recent Tennessee history: that team’s path to the Final Four went through a criminally under-seeded Butler team in the second round, then ran into a match-up nightmare in the Sweet 16 against No. 3 Louisville. Had the Vols earned the final No. 1 seed instead of Kansas (who, to their credit, ultimately won it all), we could have seen Chris Lofton vs Steph Curry in the Elite Eight.
But we’ve seen a 28-3 Tennessee team that spent time at No. 1 in the regular season get denied on Selection Sunday. In this decade, six major conference teams failed to earn a No. 1 seed despite having less than five losses:
- 2012 Missouri (30-4) – lost to No. 15 Norfolk State in Round One
- 2014 Villanova (28-4) – lost to No. 7 UConn in Round Two
- 2015 Virginia (29-3) – lost to No. 7 Michigan State in Round Two
- 2015 Arizona (31-3) – lost to No. 1 Wisconsin in Elite Eight
- 2017 UCLA (29-4) – lost to No. 2 Kentucky in Sweet 16
- 2017 Arizona (30-4) lost to No. 11 Xavier in Sweet 16
So the committee could say, “See, we got it right, none of those teams made the Final Four (and only one made the Elite Eight).” This is a disgruntled list you don’t want to be on, though the last three times it happened to teams from a diminished Pac-12. If the Vols do fall to No. 2 even after a win at Auburn, feeling sorry for yourself is a recipe for disaster.
But the Vols have the Bracket Matrix, NET, and Torvik’s predictive bracketology all on their side at the moment. Nothing is certain, but you can make a really good argument for the Vols as the favorite to earn that final No. 1 seed.
But all of those roads go through Auburn.
On The Plains
Auburn rallied from down 11 at halftime to win at Alabama on Tuesday. I would imagine sharing the floor with their in-state brethren offered some support, but tomorrow will be the first game back at Auburn since tornadoes took 23 lives in the area. It’s also senior day for Bryce Brown; there will be emotions of all kinds in the building.
The Tigers are 21-9 (10-7), but other than a three-point loss at South Carolina, every defeat is to a Top 50 team in KenPom. Their only losses at home are to Kentucky (82-80) and Ole Miss (60-55). The Rebels took the invitation to launch threes and went 13-of-33 (39.4%) while Auburn hit just 5-of-20 (25%).
Austin Wiley missed the last three games with a leg injury; Pearl referred to him as “doubtful, but not out” yesterday. Without him this is a much smaller team. But Chuma Okeke can still bang, and this team beat the Vols in Knoxville last year solely on the strength of offensive rebounds in a stat line that’s still hard to believe: 22 offensive rebounds, 24 defensive rebounds.
Teams that have wanted to play fast with Tennessee have often regretted it (Louisville, Memphis, Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina, etc.). The Tigers have the best-of-Pearl quality of controlled chaos: third in the league in turnovers allowed, third in creating turnovers. Statistically they aren’t crashing the offensive glass as hard this year, but the memories of last season will linger until the Vols prove otherwise.
But it’s the willingness to shoot and let shoot that’s most striking about this team: in SEC play, almost half of Auburn’s field goal attempts are from three (49.2%). And 43.6% of opponent attempts are from three.
One thing about this: it’s been less about Auburn’s makes than the opponent’s when it comes to wins and losses. When the opposition shoots less than 33.3% from the arc, Auburn is 11-1, its only loss to Duke. When teams hit at least 33.3% from three, Auburn is 10-8.
So, do you take the bait? Only seven teams have taken less than 20 threes against the Tigers this year. The Vols have taken less than 20 threes 15 times this year. Tennessee is 333rd nationally in the percentage of points they get from the arc. It could be a poise game in an emotionally charged environment.
Much is on the line. The Vols and Tigers will go first (Noon, ESPN), with Duke and Carolina at 6:00 PM and LSU hosting Vanderbilt at 8:30 PM. Tennessee has never won back-to-back SEC Championships. I think this team has plenty of history left.