March is a time of basketball related rejoicing. The NCAA Tournament starts midway through the month, but in the early weeks we get a flurry of fantastic college basketball with the various conference tournaments which will help decide the field for the Big Dance. I’m going to take a look at each conference, try (almost certainly unsuccessfully) to pick the winner, and determine whether anyone from that conference can make some noise, come Tourney Time. So with that, onward and upwards amigos!
The SEC get’s a horrible wrap in basketball season. Now, some of this is deserved, but this year in particular I think there’s a significant amount of close mindedness and inability to accurately asses events impacting the national college basketball media. See, people love to hate the SEC because of their football dominance. So over the past decade or so, while the SEC has had several down years I think they’ve been no worse than the Pac-12, for instance, but have constantly been painted as a distant 5th in the Big 5 Conferences during basketball season. Its a chance for the country to get revenge on schools they’ve learned to hate. However, no matter how you feel about how past SEC seasons have been judged, this year The SEC is a very good Conference, and probably the 3rd best in college basketball. That obviously starts with Kentucky at the top, but as we’ll see the conference has more teams deserving of an NCAA Bid than any conference but the Big 12.
Now, they don’t compare at all to the Big 12’s depth in once sense. While practically every team in the Big 12 (Texas Tech being the lone exception) is competitive enough to warrant post-season conversation (the NIT and CBI at least if not all to the NCAA) the SEC has some reeeeeal stinkers at the bottom of the league. Frank Haith abandoned Missouri this year and left them in absolute shambles. They’re terrible. And Bruce Pearl will have Auburn in the top 4 in this league soon enough, but that time is not now. Mississippi State is terrible, and while South Carolina has looked very good at times this year, they were generally abysmal in conference. So admittedly the bottom of the SEC is very bad, but I would say no worse (and probably better) than the bottom of the ACC. And really, I so no reason in judging a conference on the worst teams in their league unless their worst team is actually good.
BUT ANYWAY. The Middle of the SEC is every bit as good as those lower tier Big 12 teams (ie TCU). By all accounts Tennessee should have been horrible this year, but Donnie Tyndal, in spite of all the controversy surrounding him, has somehow built a .500 level club out of bubble gum and shoelaces. Florida has underachieved horribly, and are undeniably terrible BUT the talent on that roster, if they could ever get their heads out of their asses, should be a tournament team, and a top 8 caliber seed. Vanderbilt somehow came out of nowhere to throw together a competitive team, and Alabama is a Tournament quality team that simply underachieved to the point that they knocked themselves out of contention. I’m not trying to tell you that the Middle of the SEC are great, but they’re ALL competitive teams SO contrary to what many people believe, beating the Middle Tier of the SEC is not akin to beating the bottom tier of the WAC. National media writers like to beat up on the top teams in the SEC saying they haven’t beaten anyway, calling the rest of the conference some of the worst teams in college basketball which is flatly untrue. These aren’t Tournament caliber teams, but I could easily see a team like Florida or Alabama upsetting the Iowa States and Louisvilles of the world in their home gyms.
So with that in mind, I think the good teams at the top of the league are not given nearly enough credit for the wins they have earned. Teams like Ole Miss, Georgia, and Texas A&M are fringe Tournament teams, but we’ve seen time and time again that when a fringe/bubble SEC team makes the Big Dance, they take advantage of their opportunity far better than Big 12 or ACC teams do. Last year, for instance, only 3 SEC teams made the Tournament; Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee. All 3 of them made the Sweet 16. Tennessee came within inches of beating Michigan to make it to the Elite 8 (after needing a play-in game to even make the field), Florida made it to the Final 4, and Kentucky made it all the way to the championship game. This is why it makes no sense when the national media constantly say the SEC is bad. Yes they beat up on each other and it hurts their records, but when you throw the SEC up against the rest of the country, their superior athleticism really gets a chance to shine. So with that said I’d ask you to avoid any biased opinions of national media folk in considering the next 6 teams, all of whom could make the NCAA Tournament.
A&M came absolutely out of nowhere this year to finish 5th in the SEC regular season standings. They have a top 5 recruiting class coming in next season so I fully expected them to be a program on the rise, but never expected it to be this year. However, they absolutely raided the transfer market and cobbled together a collection of talented transfers (specifically Danuel House) and upper classmen, paired them with the oldest looking little 20 year old you ever did see in Daniel Carusso, and they came out of nowhere to be surprisingly competitive in the SEC. Admittedly A&M probably don’t have much of a future in them if the make it to the NCAA Tournament (I’m thinking 1 game and done) and likely need to win a couple games in the SEC Tournament to even guarantee a spot in the big dance, but what they’ve done this season has been thoroughly impressive, and I for one hope they get rewarded.
The Rebels are the next team on this list and I have to say, Andy Kennedy has put together a spectacular coaching effort this season. Ole Miss was supposed to absolutely collapse after the Marshall Henderson Era (hell… it almost collapsed DURING the Marshall Henderson Era) and Kennedy was going to be back on the hot seat. Instead, he finds this little firecracker Stefan Moody, (5’10” Jr. Transfer out of Florida Atlantic) who is absolutely lighting the league on fire to pair with Jarvis Summers, and Ole Miss suddenly has a competitive team! They are by no means perfect but for Kennedy to have pulled off 20 wins with this group is spectacular. They probably need to win a game or two in the SEC Tournament to lock down a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but they certainly could compete in the NCAA Tournament, and definitely deserve to be rewarded with a spot after this season.
Next comes the Georgia Bulldogs whose roster, by all accounts, is crap. However, as it turns out Mark Fox is apparently an absolutely spectacular coach. This has managed to squeeze more out of this roster than I ever imagined possible and somehow has them in 4th place in the SEC and likely locked to make the NCAA Tournament. The guy is just smart. He’s gotten his team to play perhaps more competitively against the juggernaut Kentucky Wildcats than anyone in the country when he had less tools to work with than many others who attempted the same feat (UNC, Texas, Louisville, LSU, Arkansas and even Florida). The guy is a great coach and I hope his excellent coaching season is rewarded with a trip to the NCAAs.
The Bayou Bengals have one of the best frontcourts in the country. Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin are stone cold killers and absolute beasts. Both these guys will play in the NBA sooner rather than later. However, their backcourt leaves quite a bit to be desired since the departure of Anthony Hickey. Transfer Josh Gray has been solid and sophomore Tim Quarterman has definitely outperformed expectations, but too often this year it hasn’t been enough. The larger problem, however, is that Johnny Jones is a horrendous coach. This man is an idiot. He botched that Kentucky game horribly and cost his team the win. The man is a spectacular recruiter (and he’s bringing in a top 5 class next year which includes the #1 player in the country) but his work on the court could use some major improvements. Even with these issues, however, they’re still 22-9, came closer than anyone to beating UK and will all the pros and the insane amounts of athleticism littered across this roster, LSU is going to be an absolute nightmare matchup for someone in the tournament. Ultimately the guard play and coaching will sink them, but they have at least a chance at a Sweet 16.
Arkansas is slowly clawing their way back to being one of the best programs in the country. In the 90s they were an absolute menace and even won the title in 1994, but things got pretty rough there for a while. This year, however, Arkansas should be a guaranteed Sweet 16 team. Coach Mike Anderson is an undeniable dick according to preeeeeetty much every coach who plays him, but unlike Mr. Jones the man is undeniably great at his job. Moreover, he has two absolute studs on this years team in Bobby Portis (who is guaranteed to make an NBA roster some day) and Michael Qualls (who has a chance to make it in the NBA). Moreover, senior Rashad Madden is a spectacular distributor for this up tempo offense, and his length and athleticism (a theme among Arkansas players) can be an absolute nightmare for opponents. This team loves to push the pace, and against most teams can absolutely run them into the ground. Arkansas could easily wear down a superior team with this style and make a run at an Elite 8, but it all depends on the draw. With the right draw, however, this team could be really dangerous in the Tournament.
But the real reason to like the SEC is that far and away the best team in the country plays in their league. Its not even close. I won’t dwell on this point because everyone else already has but Kentucky is spectacular. This team basically consists of 9 NBA guys… would be 10 if Alex Poythress hadn’t been lost for the season. They are the best defense in the country, and its not even close. They struggle offensively at times, but it never seems to matter cuz they can get 5 straight defensive stops seemingly whenever they want. Which they often do, giving their best offensive threats (Devin Booker, the Harrison twins, and Trey Lyles) time to find a rhythm and dig them out of whatever hole they may have found themselves in. And I do mean WHATEVER hole. There hasn’t been a single moment this season where I felt Kentucky was in a position that they were completely out in a game. They’re just too good. They can do whatever they want as long as their heads are in the game. The only team that can beat Kentucky is Kentucky. They’re a monster. A Leviathan. They are Ragnarok. What John Calipari has done getting 10 NBA players to sacrifice minutes and play together on 1 college roster is unheard of. Hell… its unheard of just to HAVE 10 NBA players on one roster! He is easily the National Coach of the Year, and this is the best team in college basketball. Not even close.