MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The Southeastern Conference is suddenly the king of college basketball. This is both nonsensical and true.
Let’s start with the true part:
The SEC has three teams in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament – Florida and South Carolina will play each other for the right to reach the Final Four on Sunday, and Kentucky will play Atlantic Coast Conference power North Carolina. By seed, neither the No. 4 Gators nor the No. 7 Gamecocks were expected to get this far, which has added to the league’s surprising impact.
No other conference has more than one team still alive. Not the ACC, which saw eight of its nine entrants flame out in the first weekend. Not the Big Ten, which started with seven and now has none. Not the Big 12 or Big East or Pac-12, all down to one team left.
In a sport that measures itself largely by what happens in the Big Dance, the SEC has earned all bragging rights up to this point. And possibly beyond, if you listened to Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox on Saturday.
“All the SEC, everyone wants to talk down on it, things like that,” said Fox, the hero of the Wildcats’ regional semifinal win over UCLA. “But right now, it’s one guaranteed team is going to be in the Final Four, just because those two are playing against each other, but I want to say it’s going to be two in there.”
“He didn’t say that,” interjected Kentucky coach John Calipari, trying to mitigate the bulletin-board material his freshman point guard handed the Tar Heels.
For those on the inside, it’s hard to resist chirping after all the bashing the SEC has taken in recent years. This is the highest point in South Carolina basketball history, and Frank Martin deserves immense credit for it. Same with Michael White for marching Florida this far in his second season on the job. And Kentucky is Kentucky, one of the great constants in the sport.
But now for the nonsense:
The years of bashing were deserved, and even this March run doesn’t seem like an accurate indicator of what the league was from November through February.
The SEC is just the fifth-best league in the country according to computer ratings from both Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin. Pomeroy hasn’t rated the SEC higher than fifth since 2012, or higher than fourth since 2007.
If you averaged Pomeroy’s conference rankings since he started crunching numbers in 2002, the pecking order is this: Big 12, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, then a big gap to the SEC, and finally the Pac-12.
It has been a long malaise, which the league largely didn’t mind because it was crushing everyone in football. At several SEC schools, baseball has mattered more than basketball.
Basically, the SEC has failed to establish any lasting depth. For the past 11 seasons, this has been a two-team league in March: Kentucky and Florida.
Of the SEC’s 13 appearances in the Elite Eight since 2007, 11 are by either the Wildcats or Gators. The exceptions: South Carolina this year and Tennessee in 2010. And only Kentucky and Florida have crashed the Final Four since 2006.
The Big East had five different teams reach the Final Four since then, although several of them have since moved on to other leagues. The Big Ten has had four. The ACC has had three.
Beyond the Wildcats and Gators, every other SEC program has come and gone, or never arrived. And with plenty of dead weight at the bottom of the 14-team conference, it’s been hard to take SEC hoops seriously beyond the glamor programs at the top.
Even this 2017 bounty has had its share of good fortune sprinkled in.
Fourth-seeded Florida hasn’t yet played a higher-seeded team, nor will it Sunday. The Gators have beaten teams seeded 13th (East Tennessee State), fifth (Virginia) and eighth (Wisconsin). And we all know the kind of shot it took to avoid elimination Friday night against the Badgers.
Seventh-seeded South Carolina has definitely earned its way to the regional final, punking No. 2 seed Duke in the second round and then routing No. 3 Baylor. Still, playing Scott Drew in an elimination game is a gift – his Baylor Bears have been taken down the last three seasons by teams seeded 14th (Georgia State), 12th (Yale) and now seventh (the Gamecocks).
Kentucky has come through legitimate competition as well, and was at its best against UCLA on Friday night. But don’t forget that the Wildcats were life-and-death to get past Missouri Valley Conference champion Wichita State in the second round, blocking two shots in the final seconds to preserve the victory.
If you saw South Carolina lose six of its last nine games before the NCAA tourney, including two losses to Alabama and one to Mississippi, you’re surprised by what has transpired. The Gamecocks scored 16 points in the first half of one loss to Alabama – at home.
If you saw Florida lose its last three games outside of Gainesville heading into the NCAAs, you probably didn’t expect the Gators to be standing on the brink of the Final Four.
If you saw Kentucky – well, if you saw Kentucky you knew there was a good chance the Wildcats would be here.
Measuring conference strength by what happens in a single-elimination tournament is risky and leaves everyone prone to overreaction. But these aren’t bowl games – glorified exhibition games that come weeks after the regular season ends and often produce flukish results. These are games that everyone agrees mean more than the rest.
If your conference performs now, you’ve earned the right to chirp. Even if it carries a whiff of nonsense with it.
More March Madness coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Young reporter, South Carolina coach bond over post-game question
• Gonzaga coach Few doesn’t feel he needs Final Four to validate his legacy
• Dayton’s Archie Miller accepts 7-year deal to become Indiana’s head coach
• Xavier’s J.P Macura hits amazing 80-foot shot that doesn’t count