7 SEC storylines for the NCAA Tournament
Six SEC programs heard their name called as the country readies for its first dose of March Madness in 2 years.
SEC regular-season and SEC Tournament champion Alabama highlights the group, slotting in as the 2 seed in the East Region. The Crimson Tide are joined in the East by 8 seed and SEC Tournament runner-up LSU.
In the West Region, Cuonzo Martin and Missouri head to the NCAA Tournament for the first time as a program since 2018. The Tigers earned a 9 seed and are the lone SEC representative in the West.
The Midwest Region also features an SEC program, as Tennessee heads to the Big Dance for the third time in the Rick Barnes era. The Vols earned a 5 seed in the Midwest and will look to advance to the second weekend for the second consecutive contested NCAA Tournament.
Finally, two SEC programs will play in the South Region. First, regular-season runner-up Arkansas heads to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018. Arkansas is a 3 seed, meaning that at least according to seeding, they are expected to reach the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend for the first time in 25 years. Rounding out the SEC invitees is Florida, the 7 seed in the South. With Kentucky out of the field, Florida now has the longest streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in the SEC at 4, and Mike White is the youngest active coach in Division 1 with 4 consecutive NCAA bids.
Here are 7 other SEC storylines to watch now that we’ve seen the draw.
Alabama has a viable path to the program’s first Final Four
The Tide are a well-deserved 2 seed after a phenomenal season, but Nate Oats’ club shouldn’t be satisfied with matching the school’s best seeding.
The Tide get Rick Pitino’s methodical Iona team in the first round, and should out-athlete and outrun the Gaels. A second-round matchup Maryland or UConn, both solid but flawed teams, is likewise favorable. Get to the second weekend and it is house money. Texas is good, but the Tide match them athletically and defend at a much higher level. Finally, Michigan, the region’s top seed, might be without second-leading scorer and team leader Isaiah Livers throughout the NCAA Tournament.
Nate Oats is recruiting well — but this is a salty, veteran Alabama team. It could be his best chance at a Final Four for a few years, especially with this path.
Missouri got a raw deal from the Selection Committee
A 9 seed for Missouri, in top overall seed Gonzaga’s region, is borderline criminal from the committee. Quality wins matter, and the Tigers have bunches of them, including wins over 1 seed Illinois, 2 seed Alabama, 3 seed Arkansas, at 5 seed Tennessee, at 7 seed Florida, and over a very talented 7 seeded Oregon team. That’s just not a résumé you give anything below an 8. The Tigers got a raw deal, and have the inside presence and guards to scare Gonzaga in the second round.
LSU can frighten Michigan in the second round, but St. Bonaventure is no pushover
Will Wade’s team is playing terrific basketball, and we saw just how high the ceiling is for the Tigers in Nashville this week, where LSU bested a solid Ole Miss team and a red hot Arkansas before falling in heartbreaking fashion late to the Tide in the SEC Championship. The Tigers score at such a high level with Trendon Watford and Cameron Thomas that they can beat anyone on any given night. They defend so poorly they can lose to anyone too, and St. Bonaventure, a team that really defends at an elite level, is precisely the type of team that has given the Tigers problems in the Wade era. Win that game though, and there’s no reason LSU can’t score enough to scare a wounded Michigan.
Colgate is good. Arkansas is just better
One of the trendy things to do in March Madness pools is to find a mid-major or small conference team full of seniors and say: “I love the way they play — they’ll really push so and so.” Enter Colgate. Led by Jordan Burns and Jack Ferguson, the Raiders have two of the best small conference seniors you’ve never heard of. They are fun players, and this is a good team. They just aren’t a “beat a team full of dudes” good. Arkansas is too balanced and too sound defensively to lose to a Colgate type team — and the Hogs are just as old as the Raiders, which is why people love Colgate so much to begin with.
A potential Round 2 game between Tennessee and Oklahoma State would be appointment TV
The Vols seemed to put things together over the final week of the season in beating a Florida team that had pummeled them in January twice in five days and then pushing Alabama in the SEC semifinals. Yves Pons and, doctors willing, John Fulkerson, could be playing their last basketball for the Vols, and soon to be first-round NBA Draft picks Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson almost certainly are playing their final games in orange. The Vols are just better than the bid-thieving Oregon State team they get in round one — but a second-round matchup, against potential No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham and a future star in Avery Anderson will be appointment TV. It’s a classic “young talent and young star coach” against “young talent plus veteran coach and veteran stars” game that makes March Madness one of the best sporting events in the world. May the basketball gods be kind and give us this game.
What does Florida have left in the tank?
The Gators were a mess down the stretch. They blew a chance to lock up a double-bye in Nashville by losing to a good but beatable Missouri at home. Then, with Tre Mann battling migraines, they coughed up a huge lead at Tennessee and settled for the 5 seed. Then they had two players late to walk-through at the SEC Tournament and had Omar Payne ejected for a terrible elbow on John Fulkerson in a 12-point quarterfinal loss to Tennessee that wasn’t nearly that close.
Florida has some great wins this season, beating LSU, Tennessee and West Virginia on the road.
That they’ve done that despite three COVID pauses and despite having preseason All-American and SEC Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson nearly die on the floor in December is a testament to the team’s strength in the face of unspeakable trauma and off-court challenges.
But the Gators haven’t appeared as focused down the stretch, are struggling offensively, don’t guard the pick and roll well and you wonder, after all the adversity, how much is left in the tank.
Prediction: 3 SEC teams will reach the Sweet 16
Alabama is headed to the second weekend. We think Arkansas has a great chance too. Someone will join them, despite seeding suggesting otherwise. The SEC won the SEC-Big 12 challenge and is a better league than folks think. It will prove that this week.