So you’re saying there’s a chance?

As fate would have it, there are 3 SEC teams advancing to the Sweet 16. This is just the 12th time that has happened since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, and it’s the 6th time it’s happened in the 21st century. It last happened in 2019 when the SEC tied its own record with 4 teams in the Sweet 16.

That year, we saw Kentucky and Auburn advance to the Elite Eight while Tennessee and LSU were both eliminated in the Sweet 16. The downside of that was Kentucky and Auburn were in the same region. As entertaining as it was to see a pair of SEC teams battling it out for a spot in the Final Four, it meant the conference wasn’t going to get 2 teams in, much less 3.

Even in 2017 when the SEC had 3 teams in the Elite Eight, Florida and South Carolina were in the same region, so any possibility of 3 SEC teams in the Final Four was gone before the Sweet 16 began.

But this year? There’s a chance. Three SEC teams in the Final Four isn’t that crazy.

It’s at least a possibility by virtue of Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas all being in different regions. That’s somewhat rare in the SEC. It’ll mark the 8th instance in which 3 SEC teams in the Final Four is on the table at this stage of the tournament:

  • 2023
  • 2019
  • 2007
  • 2000
  • 1999
  • 1996
  • 1993
  • 1987

(In 1986, the SEC actually put 4 teams in the Sweet 16. Three of them, however, were in the same region. Ergo, only 1 team advanced to the Final Four.)

Of course, none of those situations resulted in the SEC having 3 teams represented in the Final Four. The only instance in which a conference put 3 teams in the Final Four happened in the very first year that the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams back in 1985. The Big East put 3 teams into the Final Four and had that epic Villanova-Georgetown national championship game.

The only instances of the SEC having multiple teams in the Final Four were 2014 (Kentucky and Florida), 2006 (Florida and LSU), 1996 (Kentucky and MSU) and 1994 (Arkansas and Florida).

So is that realistic? And is there a legitimate path to all 3 cutting down their regional nets? It’s not likely, but it’s also not crazy.

Nobody is facing better than a 4-seed in the Sweet 16. In fact, Alabama’s path to a Final Four doesn’t include anyone better than a 5-seed.

Let’s start with the fact that the Tide are currently the prohibitive favorite to win the whole thing. They’re -145 to get to the Final Four.

San Diego State is no slouch, though. Brian Dutcher’s team has the personnel to embody the physical, slow tempo Tennessee game plan, which worked against the Tide in Knoxville in February. SDSU is playing with house money having already broken through to a Sweet 16 for the 3rd time in program history. The Aztecs have never reached the Elite Eight, but with a big, veteran team, they’re more than capable of pushing Alabama to the brink.

I wouldn’t be surprised if SDSU gives Alabama a closer game than the Creighton-Princeton winner. As impressive as Creighton has been, it has still been an extremely streaky team. I’m not sure the Bluejays can effectively create high-percentage looks against a team that defends as well as Alabama.

The Tide are in a region wherein the other 3 teams remaining have 2 combined Elite Eight appearances, and both occurred more than half a century ago. That doesn’t guarantee anything in March, but that’s a reminder why there’s value in being the top seed.

Compare that road to Arkansas, which had to beat a 1-seed just to reach the Sweet 16. Now, the Hogs are underdogs again facing off with a UConn team that ranks No. 4 in KenPom and is 1 of 3 teams (Houston and Texas are the others) that rank in the top 15 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Danny Hurley’s squad was a trendy pick to reach the Final Four. Adama Sanogo is one of the top remaining players in the field, and with his skill set at his size, he’ll present a matchup unlike anything the Hogs saw in their win against Kansas.

Of course, what would await the Hogs if they pulled off another upset would be the Gonzaga-UCLA winner. That’s a game in which the ageless Drew Timme will face off with fellow “how are they still in college” guys Jaime Jaquez and Tyger Campbell. Mick Cronin vs. Mark Few is a fascinating contrast of styles, which we saw play out in that instant classic in the 2021 Final Four.

In other words, Arkansas will be underdogs in both games. Then again, the Hogs are a year removed from taking down an even better Gonzaga team, and given the rash of injuries that UCLA is dealing with, Arkansas could potentially catch the Bruins at the perfect time coming off a quick turnaround.

What about the Vols? Is Rick Barnes about to lead Tennessee to a Final Four, aka a place it’s never been?

I tell ya what. After the way that team showed up against Duke, Tennessee can absolutely make a Final Four run. Among the remaining SEC teams, they have the most favorable Sweet 16 matchup, against a plucky FAU team. The path to the Owls pulling off the upset would involve hitting outside shots and somehow keeping Tennessee off the glass. Good luck with that.

More daunting for Tennessee is the possibility of facing the Kansas State-Michigan State winner. If Tennessee advances, it’ll either get Tom Izzo on a quick turnaround (where he’s 23-8) or a Kansas State team that looked awfully poised late against Kentucky. My guess is that the Vols vs. either one would be considered a virtual coin flip. The odds could even favor Michigan State for the March Izzo factor:

Of course, more daunting is the fact that Barnes is fresh off his first NCAA Tournament win against a single-digit seed since 2008. If he’s going to take rugged Tennessee to the promised land, he’ll have to repeat that feat 2 more times.

Let’s be honest here. The odds of the SEC teams going 6-0 this weekend aren’t great. There’s a reason why this feat hasn’t happened by any conference since 1985. It’s extremely difficult. Much more likely is seeing 2 teams from the same conference reach the Final Four. Here are all of those instances since 1986:

  • 1987 Big East (Providence, Syracuse)
  • 1988 Big Eight (Kansas, Oklahoma)
  • 1989 Big Ten (Michigan, Illinois)
  • 1990 ACC (Duke, Georgia Tech)
  • 1991 ACC (Duke, UNC)
  • 1992 Big Ten (Michigan, Indiana)
  • 1994 SEC (Arkansas, Florida)
  • 1996 SEC (Kentucky, MSU)
  • 1999 Big Ten (Michigan State, Ohio State)
  • 2000 Big Ten (Michigan State, Wisconsin)
  • 2001 ACC (Duke, Maryland)
  • 2002 Big 12 (Kansas, Oklahoma)
  • 2003 Big 12 (Kansas, Texas)
  • 2004 ACC (Georgia Tech, Duke)
  • 2005 Big Ten (Illinois, Michigan State)
  • 2006 SEC (Florida, LSU)
  • 2009 Big East (UConn, Villanova)
  • 2013 Big East (Louisville, Syracuse)
  • 2014 SEC (Kentucky, Florida)
  • 2015 Big Ten (Wisconsin, Michigan State)
  • 2016 ACC (UNC, Syracuse)
  • 2022 ACC (UNC, Duke)

That’s 22 instances in the last 36 NCAA Tournaments that featured exactly 2 teams from the same conference reaching the Final Four. Meaning if the SEC pulled off that feat, it would but a solid, but rather typical feat. Three, however, is a different story.

I mean, the 1980s Big East is held in such high regard because of how they stacked up against other conferences in March. Lord knows the SEC and any other conference is a long way off from that kind of run.

But there’s at least a puncher’s chance for this to be a special March for the SEC. After all, Alabama is the top overall seed and has looked the part so far. Of the 8 matchups in the Sweet 16, Tennessee probably has the second most favorable draw. In the last 3 NCAA Tournaments, nobody has been better at beating elite opponents than Eric Musselman (don’t forget 2021 when Arkansas gave eventual national champ Baylor its toughest game in the Elite Eight).

It’s certainly a better position to be in than the Big Ten and ACC, both of which needed their last remaining team to pull off Sunday upsets just to have a single team in the Sweet 16. The Pac-12 is also left with 1 representative, UCLA, which faces a daunting Sweet 16 matchup against Gonzaga.

There are no sure things in March. It feels like it’s at least a good bet that the SEC will have its first Final Four team since Auburn in 2019. Who knows? Maybe we’re about to get an Alabama-Tennessee rematch in the Final Four.

Hey, there’s at least a chance.