Predicting how far every SEC team will go in the NCAA Tournament
There are 6, and there should’ve been 7.
Six SEC teams are dancing, which doesn’t include the bubble team that made it to the SEC Championship by virtue of taking down top-15 foes Auburn (2-seed) and Arkansas (4-seed). But I’ve done enough complaining about Texas A&M and the lack of importance that the selection committee put on the SEC Tournament.
As for the 6 teams that are dancing, well, that’s historic. It’s the first time since 1999-2004 that the SEC has a 6-year streak with at least 6 teams in the field. Of course, none of these teams are 1-seeds. The SEC hasn’t had one of those since 2015 Kentucky. The SEC hasn’t had a national championship participant since 2014, and it hasn’t celebrated a title since 2012.
Is that on the table for any SEC team in the field? Let’s dig into that.
Here’s how far I have each SEC team going in the NCAA Tournament:
Alabama — Round of 32
Sorry, but how can you trust the most Jekyll and Hyde team in America to show up in March? Alabama is maddening from game to game, and even half to half. We saw that against Vandy in the SEC Tournament. I think we see it again in the NCAA Tournament. Everyone will point out how dangerous the Tide can be because of the wins against Gonzaga, Houston and Baylor. It’s true that the upside is there. So is the downside.
Nate Oats’ team would be a challenging matchup if it somehow got past the first weekend, but I see a hungry, lights-out Texas Tech defense forcing Alabama into all sorts of bad shots. The Red Raiders are No. 1 in the country in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. I think we get a reminder of that and it’s an opening weekend exit for the Tide.
Auburn — Round of 32
Speaking of teams from the state of Alabama that I can’t trust, man, it’s been a rough month for the Tigers. They have all the makings of a team that peaked too early. As tempting as it is to pencil Auburn in for a deep run after seeing them get a favorable bracket, I worry about the flaws we’ve seen. You know, the inconsistent guard play, the bad shot selection and the inability to stop the bleeding against lesser teams.
There’s a reason we’ve never seen a team lose in its conference tournament quarterfinals and win the NCAA Tournament (they incorrectly said on the SEC Tournament broadcast that Villanova did that in 1985, but the Wildcats actually reached the Big East semifinals). I could see a scenario in which USC big man Isaiah Mobley gets Walker Kessler in foul trouble, and it totally changes the complexion of the Round of 32 matchup. Instead of watching Jabari Smith shine for multiple weekends on the March stage, Auburn’s letdown of a month continues with an anticlimactic end to what once appeared to be a special season in the works.
Arkansas — Sweet 16
Honestly, after seeing that draw, I think Arkansas fans would be pleased with reaching the Sweet 16. Having to go up to Buffalo to potentially face consecutive teams from the Northeast would be a major challenge. Seth Davis pointed out on the CBS broadcast that Vermont plays a style similar to Colgate, which gave the Hogs everything they could handle last year. But I think an Arkansas team that defends extremely well follows a similar formula to last year’s Elite 8 run. That is, force turnovers to get into transition.
This 2021-22 group, which played like a vastly improved team in the latter half of the season, is not just dependent on JD Notae to get buckets, though obviously he can’t struggle like he did against Texas A&M. I don’t think you can really on Chris Lykes or even the steady Jaylin Williams, to go out and get 25.
A run to the Sweet 16 would be a solid feat, even if it ended with a loss to No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga. The Hogs haven’t been to consecutive Sweet 16s since the Nolan Richardson glory days. But like last year, when Arkansas ran into eventual national champion Baylor, another 1-seed gets the better of Eric Musselman’s team.
Kentucky — National runner-up
A few things are working in Kentucky’s favor. For starters, that feels like the first time in forever in which Kentucky wasn’t put in the proverbial “group of death.” That’s a win. Even with the defending national champ Baylor potentially standing in the way in the Elite 8, Kentucky has to feel encouraged about the thought of getting a pair of mid-majors in order to reach the second weekend, and perhaps then getting a Purdue team ranked No. 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency in the Sweet 16.
Shooting woes aside, I like what we’ve seen from Kentucky in the past month or so. They finally appear to be healthy. TyTy Washington’s ankle might’ve actually benefitted from not having to play in an SEC championship against those A&M guards. Oscar Tshiebwe is such a matchup nightmare on both sides of the ball, and he only fouled out once all season, so I don’t expect that to derail the Cats.
Kentucky finally has a team of veterans, and call me crazy, but I think that matters in this tournament. John Calipari’s squad has become exactly what Big Blue Nation has been hoping for. It’s not without flaws, but it feels like it has the right March DNA. Ultimately, though, I have Calipari getting a rematch with the Kansas program that beat his Memphis team back in 2008. Like that game 14 years ago, Kentucky struggles to hold a lead late and the Jayhawks cut down the nets.
LSU — Round of 64
I have no clue how LSU is going to pick up the pieces after this disaster of a weekend that saw Will Wade fired. What a time to lose your head coach. This could feel like the 2007-08 Indiana team, which rose into the top 10, but then had to endure a midseason firing of Kelvin Sampson, which ultimately sent the team into a spiral and a Round of 64 exit. Can Kevin Nickelberry fare better than Dan Dakich?
(What a wild out-of-context sentence that is.)
It’s hard to envision LSU playing well enough to make a run past the opening weekend. Even without Wade’s firing, we’d still be talking about a team that has 1 win against an NCAA Tournament team in the past 2 months. Maybe that massive defensive improvement will fare well, and LSU will shut down an Iowa State team that has been a dumpster fire offensively as of late. There’s a path for LSU to have one of those “nobody believed in us” showings as a favorite in Round 1 similar to what we saw in 2019 shortly after Wade’s turmoil began. Those Tigers, too, played with an interim coach and reached the Sweet 16.
But this feels like a rock fight in the Round of 64, and I’m not confident that Xavier Pinson and the Tigers are going to be able to adjust without Wade on the sidelines.
Tennessee — Elite 8
It’s crazy to think that Rick Barnes hasn’t been to the Elite 8 since 2008. This squad, however, has all the ability to end that streak. Offensive woes plagued the Vols early in the year, but Kennedy Chandler and the Vols found their identity in the second half of the season. In the past 2 months, Tennessee is 15-3 with 3 losses to top-6 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. That included a 3-game run through the SEC Tournament in which the Vols were in control from start to finish.
Tennessee has a tricky draw after somehow not getting a 2-seed. That means Michigan, which has one of the more dynamic bigs in the country in Hunter Dickinson, could await in Round 2. It also means Villanova could await in the Sweet 16. There aren’t too many better coaches in the country than Jay Wright, especially if he has a full week to plan. That would be a brutal matchup given how hot the Wildcats are entering March. But Tennessee’s guards, just as they have all year, remain patient and they create high-percentage looks in the half-court to pull out a nail-biter of a win.
So what stands in the way of the Vols making their first Final Four in school history? Kofi Cockburn and the Fighting Illini. After getting embarrassed in last year’s Round of 32 against Loyola-Chicago, Brad Underwood’s team bounces back in a major way by feeding the veteran big man and cutting down the South Region nets.
The Vols come up 1 game short of an unprecedented Final Four run.