Bruce Pearl and Greg Sankey didn’t know it at the time, but they set themselves up to be the butt of the joke.

There were strong comments made by the Auburn coach and the SEC commissioner ahead of the NCAA Tournament, wherein the conference tied its record with 8 bids in the field.

“Our league is prepared to make a run in March,” Pearl said after Auburn’s SEC Tournament quarterfinal win last week.

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At the time, sure, you’d expect a longtime SEC coach like Pearl to bang the drum for his league. What might have raised more eyebrows nationally was what Sankey said that same Friday in the middle of the SEC Tournament.

“That just tells you that the bandwidth inside the top 50 is highly competitive,” Sankey told ESPN ahead of the NCAA Tournament. “We are giving away highly competitive opportunities for automatic qualifiers (from smaller leagues), and I think that pressure is going to rise as we have more competitive basketball leagues at the top end because of expansion.”

Yikes. That didn’t jive well with the NCAA Tournament purists. It wouldn’t have jived well if the SEC was perfect on the opening weekend. But perfect, the SEC was far from that. It was as embarrassing of an opening weekend as the SEC has ever had.

For Auburn, Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi State and South Carolina, “a run” was more like running into a brick wall. All 5 of those teams lost to a worse seed in the Round of 64.

  • No. 14 Oakland beats No. 3 Kentucky
  • No. 13 Princeton beats No. 4 Auburn
  • No. 11 Oregon beats No. 6 South Carolina
  • No. 10 Colorado beats No. 7 Florida
  • No. 9 Michigan State beats No. 8 Mississippi State

Oakland, Princeton and Oregon all needed to win their respective conference tournaments to get in as automatic qualifiers while Colorado and Michigan State were bubble teams entering their respective conference tournaments.

Tell me, Sankey, if this fits the narrative that the smaller leagues with automatic qualifiers are being given bids. Auburn and Kentucky lost to Yale and Oakland, respectively. Before this year, they had 1 combined trip to the Round of 32.

Foot, meet mouth.

This is why the SEC can’t have nice (basketball) things. The conference that hasn’t sent a team to the Final Four since 2019 Auburn is now in serious jeopardy of watching that drought continue. Ironically, a Tennessee team that has never been to a Final Four is now the conference’s best remaining hope.

It’s a tough look when Auburn was frustrated about its seeding. Pearl’s son, Auburn assistant Steven Pearl went on with The Next Round and vented about being the SEC Tournament champ who got sent to Washington as the 4-seed in UConn’s Region.

Look. I get where he’s coming from. It’s an 8-bid league. In theory, a team that wins that conference tournament and also ranks in the top 5 in both NET and KenPom should’ve gotten more love from the selection committee.

But that’s a distant memory when you lose to Yale amid a wildly disappointing opening round for the conference.

To be clear, this isn’t all on an Auburn team that showed a total lack of composure — I know that Chad Baker-Mazara was just retaliating, but that elbow/flagrant 2 significantly changed how Auburn played that game — in a game that they shouldn’t won by 15.

It’s not a coincidence that Kentucky’s March struggles have coincided with the SEC’s March struggles. The team with 1 NCAA Tournament victory in the 2020s decade carried the conference throughout the 2010s. Last year’s Alabama squad was the SEC’s first 1-seed since 2015 Kentucky, and fittingly, it collapsed with an upset loss to eventual-runner up San Diego State.


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In 2013 when the SEC was in its first year with its expanded 14-team league, it received just 3 NCAA Tournament bids. That same thing happened the following year in 2014 and again in 2016. At the time, Sankey shared his frustration with the long road that awaited SEC hoops.

“It’s not at all what we have said is an expectation across the board for our sports, but it’s the third time in 4 years,” the SEC commissioner told in 2016. “That should be concerning as that becomes a trend and not happenstance or circumstance. So while we’ve done much to improve facilities, coaches, scheduling strategies — I think we saw progress this year — we still aren’t where we need to be.”

Sankey continued.

“It stings,” Sankey said in 2016. “We have to get better. We have to improve across the board. When our non-conference scheduling is strong, we have to win those games. It’s not enough to play those games.”

It’s not enough just to play in the NCAA Tournament anymore. The SEC has shown that it can do that by having 8-bid seasons in 3 of the past 6 years. In 2018, it had 6 teams reach the Round of 32, yet it still didn’t send a single team to the Elite Eight. In 2023, it had another 6 teams reach the Round of 32, yet it again didn’t send a single team to the Elite Eight.

That’s why this year already clinched “most disappointing opening round” status, but it remains to be seen if the SEC will send a single team to the Elite Eight this year. The only SEC program that has accomplished that feat in the 2020s decade, Arkansas, missed the NCAA Tournament altogether and was one of the most disappointing teams in America. Fitting.

Hope is no longer good enough for SEC hoops. It’s becoming the butt of the joke.

That should sting.