You can spin it however you want.

Win the conference tournament and you’ll convince yourself that your team is about to embark on a run through the NCAA Tournament to claim a national title. Lose in the first game of the conference tournament and you’ll convince yourself that your team needed extra rest and that was a blessing in disguise.

History says that you can point back to examples of that in the SEC. History also says that you can put the negative spin on your team’s conference tournament, too.

You can tell yourself that a deep conference tournament run will lead to tired legs in the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament. You can also tell yourself that an early conference tournament exit is a sign that your team is backing its way into the only tournament that matters.

We know the spin zones. Do we know what the numbers actually indicate, though?

Let’s dig into that.

We should probably first establish some parameters. The current SEC Tournament is with 5 days of action involving the conference’s 14 teams. The 1992 SEC Tournament was when the conference first had 12 teams, though Auburn didn’t participate that year, so 1993 was the first time that the SEC had 12 teams in its tournament. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll use the past 3 decades as our sample size (1993-2022).

(It also helps that we had the 3-point line that entire time. I do think that should be factored as it relates to “momentum” or how a team handles playing more frequently.)

Here’s how far each SEC Tournament winner since 1993 went in the NCAA Tournament, based on when they were eliminated:

  • Round of 64 — 3 (2000 ARK, 2008 Georgia, 2009 MSU)
  • Round of 32 — 9 (1994 UK, 1999 UK, 2002 MSU, 2004 UK, 2005 Florida, 2012 Vandy, 2013 Ole Miss, 2016 UK, 2022 UT)
  • Sweet 16 — 3 (2001 UK, 2018 UK, 2021 Alabama)
  • Elite Eight — 4 (1995 UK, 2003 UK, 2010 UK, 2017 UK)
  • Final Four — 6 (1993 UK, 1996 MSU, 2011 UK, 2014 Florida, 2015 UK, 2019 Auburn)
  • Runner-up — 1 (1997 UK)
  • Won it all — 3 (1998 UK, 2006 Florida, 2007 Florida)

Pretty scattered, right?

Of those 29 SEC Tournament winners, 41% (12 of them) failed to make it out of open weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Alternatively, nearly half (14 of 29) at least made it to an Elite Eight.

Perhaps that’s why the spin zones exist. Both outcomes feel somewhat likely.

As for the 3 who were eliminated in the Round of 64 during that timeframe, let’s also remember that all 3 of those teams stole bids and went into the NCAA Tournament as double-digit seeds. In other words, they were underdogs from the jump.

Basically 1/3 of the SEC Tournament champions in the last 3 decades went on a run to at least the Final Four. That at least pushes back on the notion that a deep SEC Tournament run will lead to an early NCAA Tournament exit.

Let’s look at it through the other lens. Here are all the 19 SEC teams who reached a Final Four from 1993-2022 and how far they lasted in the SEC Tournament:

  • Lost in SEC Tournament quarterfinals — 1 (2017 South Carolina)
  • Lost in SEC Tournament semifinals — 3 (1994 Arkansas, 2000 Florida, 2006 LSU)
  • Lost in SEC Tournament Championship — 5 (1994 Florida, 1995 Arkansas, 1996 UK, 2012 Kentucky, 2014 Florida)
  • Won SEC Tournament — 10 (1993 UK, 1996 MSU, 1997 UK, 1998 UK, 2006 Florida, 2007 Florida, 2011 UK, 2014 Florida, 2015 UK, 2019 Auburn)

So of the 19 SEC teams who went on to earn a Final Four berth since 1993, 15 of them at least played in an SEC Championship. At the very least, that debunks the notion that SEC teams who made deep NCAA Tournament runs did so on the heels of early conference tournament exits.

That’s why last year’s Auburn team, who struggled down the stretch but still entered the SEC Tournament as the 1-seed, felt like it was in trouble by virtue of suffering that conference quarterfinal loss to A&M. Maybe that’s the true warning sign. If your team gets bounced in the quarterfinal during conference tournament weekend, don’t hold your breath on a Final Four run.

In fact, I went back and looked at every Final Four team in the NCAA Tournament during the 21st century. Here are the teams who made the Final Four after failing to reach the conference semifinal (note that 2001 Arizona didn’t have a conference tournament to play in):

  • 2000 UNC
  • 2001 Michigan State
  • 2003 Texas
  • 2003 Marquette
  • 2005 Michigan State
  • 2007 UCLA
  • 2009 UConn
  • 2010 Michigan State
  • 2013 Michigan (runner-up)
  • 2016 Syracuse
  • 2017 South Carolina
  • 2019 Texas Tech
  • 2021 UCLA

That might look like a lot, but that’s only 13 of 87 (15%) Final Four teams in the 21st century who made that run despite not reaching the semifinal of their conference tournament. None of those teams went on to win a national title. Of the 87 Final Four teams in the 21st century who played in a conference tournament, 2013 Michigan is the lone squad who played in the national championship after failing to make the conference tournament semifinals.

There’s your data point to remember while you fill out your bracket. If a team loses in the quarterfinals of their conference tournament, it’s not the end of the world to have them getting to a Final Four. Anything more than that? History suggests that’s extremely unlikely.

As it relates to this year, my guess is that Alabama will be the only SEC team who should be on notice for this. I can’t imagine there’ll be people predicting Tennessee to win it all with Rick Barnes’ March struggles, especially after the season-ending injury to Zakai Zeigler. And outside of Sister Jean, penciling in Kentucky to cut down the nets feels like a stretch.

I’d say as long as Alabama doesn’t suffer any major injuries and it at least reaches the semifinals this week, the range of NCAA Tournament outcomes is still wide. Winning the SEC Tournament doesn’t guarantee anything. Three of the last 4 winners failed to make it past the Sweet 16, including that 2021 Alabama squad who swept the regular season and conference titles. Perhaps another sweep is in store.

If that does end up being the case, spin it however you want.