SEC basketball is no longer Kentucky, Florida, and then Everybody Else. These days, the conference is as deep as it has been in a long time. When Auburn and Tennessee became co-champions this season it was the first time since 2009 that either Kentucky or Florida didn’t win the regular season title. In the last ten years, the SEC has typically received 3-5 bids to the NCAA Tournament. This year they claimed 8.
Last March three SEC teams ended up in the Elite Eight — Florida and Kentucky, yes, but also 7 seed South Carolina, who advanced to to the Final Four for the first time. So who stands the best chance to make a similar run to the Elite Eight and beyond this year? Let’s roll through all eight teams, starting with the least likely to make a deep run and moving to most likely.
After freshman sensation Collin Sexton practically carried Alabama through the first two rounds of the SEC tournament, college and NBA fans will be watching closely to see if he can pull a Kemba Walker and upset some giants this March. Despite sneaking into the tourney, Alabama actually has a great defense (#13 on KenPom.com) to go along with their stud point guard. As much fun as a Cinderella run would be, I don’t see it. This team lost 15 games this season and have a tough first round matchup against Virginia Tech with 1 seed Villanova waiting next.
The Tigers have top-10 NBA prospect Michael Porter Jr. back after he missed all season due to injury, but the star freshman was disappointing in Mizzou’s opening game loss in the SEC Tournament. This is a team that relies heavily on freshman and has no truly reliable point guard. Not exactly a recipe for success in the NCAA tournament. However, they have size, can shoot the 3 (although 3-point specialist Jordan Barnett will miss the opening round), and have a relatively lucky draw for an 8 seed. There’s a chance Porter Jr. takes over Carmelo-style and leads this team to the Sweet 16, but it’s more likely they fall to an athletic Florida St. squad in the first round.
Here’s your classic great offense, shaky defense team that tends to come up short in the postseason. Actually, “shaky” is probably too kind, as Arkansas rank 103rd on defense according to KenPom. If you prefer more traditional stats, they are 260th in the country in points allowed. Ouch. Still, they boast two senior scorers that shoot well over 40% from 3 and a freshman big named Daniel Gafford who averages over 2 blocks per game. Their draw matches them up against 10 seed Butler, which is no cakewalk. Then it’s on to Purdue, a high-scoring bunch that could hang 90 on them.
You know about Florida’s rich tournament history this century. Since 2011, they have reached the Elite Eight five times, including the Final Four in 2014. This is an experienced team with shooters galore and confident guardplay, which usually translates to deep runs. The catch? This is also a weirdly streaky team, with two separate three-game losing streaks on their resume. It wouldn’t totally surprise me if they ended up in another Elite Eight, but with Texas Tech’s stifling defense awaiting them in the second round, it’s going to be a tall task to get back there.
Auburn’s unforeseen success story this year is… complicated. Before the season the Tigers assistant coach Chuck Person was one of four college basketball coaches arrested due to the FBI investigation. As a result, two of Auburn’s best players were suspended because of their involvement. Head coach Bruce Pearl has been waist-deep in NCAA recruiting violations wherever he has gone, so none of this comes as a huge shock. What did come as a shock was Auburn’s 2017-18 season. At 13-5, they finished atop the SEC regular season when they were predicted to dwell near the bottom.
On the other hand, they ended the season 2-4 and have no guys over 6’8”. Auburn’s style is small ball at a rapid pace. That could be enough to get them through a couple rounds, but a potential matchup vs. Kansas in the Sweet 16 is a tough ask. If Pearl’s scandal-plagued team does make a run this year, you can bet the NCAA will be cringing.
Well, what do we have here? Another John Calipari team hitting its stride in March after an up-and-down season? You don’t say! This is a frustrating group of uber-athletic 5-star freshman that just cruised through the SEC Tournament. Forward Kevin Knox is the leading scorer, but he’s proven he can disappear at times. It hasn’t mattered lately though, because Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has emerged as an all-around stud. Calipari’s bunch have the talent to reach yet another Final Four, but they have also looked downright lost at times this season.
It also doesn’t help that Kentucky has one of the toughest paths out of their region. First round opponent Davidson can get hot in a hurry, second round opponent Arizona has almost as much raw talent as Kentucky, and if they make it through to the Sweet 16, #1 overall seed Virginia will likely be in the way. Due to their history and that SEC tourney title, the Wildcats will be a semi-popular pick to get into the Elite Eight or Final Four. Proceed with caution is all I’m saying.
Texas A&M underachieved in the SEC this season, dropping their first five conference games and finishing with a 9-9 record. Even so, I like this team. The Aggies have an intimidating frontcourt that features 6’10” bigs Tyler Davis and Robert Williams. They got huge wins over West Virginia, Auburn, and Kentucky that helped them secure a 7 seed despite their mediocre conference play. They have balanced scoring and a brick wall of a defense (#12 on KenPom).
My only concern is they don’t necessarily have a go-to guy that can get buckets when everything breaks down. You usually need that in the tournament. To get by North Carolina in the second round, somebody will need to emerge as a Dick Vitale PTPer.
First, we have to address the Rick Barnes factor. Here is a coach that has not made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament since 2008 (The year before that his 2007 Texas team led by KEVIN DURANT was knocked out in the second round. He maybe should’ve lost his job right then and there). So Barnes hasn’t exactly had smashing tournament success lately. This Volunteer team could change that.
Tennessee has a stout defense (#5 on KenPom), they can shoot the 3, and they shouldn’t be too tested on their way to the Sweet 16. Then the next likely opponent would be the Cincinnati Bearcats and their menacing defense, but that’s a game the Vols could definitely win. After that, Virginia, Kentucky, or Arizona, who would all present serious challenges. But this is March. Maybe Buffalo will be waiting for them in the Elite Eight.