Here's how I thought SEC teams would have done in the NCAA Tournament
Just close your eyes for a second.
Picture a world in which you would have been filling out your bracket this second. You would have been counting down the hours until those NCAA Tournament games on Thursday rolled around and your work life would have come to a halt. Your buffalo wing consumption would have sky-rocketed and your workplace productivity would have plummeted.
Keep your eyes closed. I didn’t tell you to open them. Have somebody else read this column to you if you can’t multi-task.
Now, with your eyes still closed, imagine how each SEC team would have done in the NCAA Tournament. Imagine we could have watched everything play out and each SEC team wouldn’t have been left wondering “what if.”
Let’s start with a few basic points.
How many SEC teams would have made it in?
My guess is 4.
Auburn, Florida, Kentucky and LSU were already locks heading into the SEC Tournament. Arkansas and Mississippi State theoretically could have made a deep run and snuck in? I still think Kentucky would have taken care of MSU and I’m not sure Arkansas would have had the legs to win 3-4 games in as many days.
And while I understand why Bruce Pearl voiced his desire for Tennessee to make the tournament, his team demolishing the Vols to close to the regular season probably shut the door on any outside chance of that happening.
What about the seeds?
I honestly don’t think any of them would have drastically changed their seeds. My prediction was a Kentucky-Texas A&M SEC Championship, which even if Kentucky had won, I think we would have been talking about them as a 2-seed.
Here’s how I saw them going into selection Sunday:
- No. 2 Kentucky
- No. 5 Auburn
- No. 9 LSU
- No. 9 Florida
Again, that was based on how I saw the SEC Tournament playing out. For the likes of Auburn, LSU and Florida, it wouldn’t have suddenly had a conference title to add, unlike Kentucky.
No. 9 Florida
ELIMINATED — Round of 32
Yes, I think despite all the talk of Florida backing into the NCAA Tournament — I had the Gators losing to MSU in the SEC Tournament — I think they would have won that ever-intriguing coin-flip 8-9 matchup. I don’t base that on the belief that Kerry Blackshear would have returned and looked like the preseason SEC Player of the Year he was billed as.
But I legitimately think the Gators would have defended extremely well and reminded everyone why they started the year at No. 6 in the country. Call it a combination of “nobody believes in us” and “we’re playing for our coach.” I would have taken my chances on Mike White winning at least 1 NCAA Tournament game, which he did each of the previous 3 years.
Unfortunately because of the Gators’ disappointing season, they would have drawn a 1-seed in the Round of 32. Whether that was Dayton, Kansas or Gonzaga, I couldn’t see the Gators lasting 40 minutes without a healthy Blackshear. Shoot, even with a healthy Blackshear, nothing from what we saw suggested that the Gators were gearing up to take down a giant.
White’s situation would have gotten murkier with a blowout loss in the Round of 32.
No. 9 LSU
ELIMINATED — Round of 32
Remember when nobody believed in LSU last year because of the Will Wade stuff? Well, there wouldn’t have been a whole lot of momentum for the Tigers this year seeing as how they were without a winning streak the past 5 weeks. The difference this year as opposed to last year when LSU was 16-2 in a rock solid SEC was that the Tigers were still in a tough spot on that 8-9 line.
Like Florida, I would have liked my odds of picking LSU to win a 50-50 matchup. Veteran guards like Skylar Mays and Ja’Vonte Smart would have made all the difference in a competitive opening round matchup. But in order to beat a 1-seed, where was the upside? LSU’s best win of the year was … at Texas? They went 0-3 against ranked opponents, albeit all of which were 1-possession losses.
Still, I don’t think LSU’s defense would have been enough to slow down a 1-seed like the one they would have faced. The perimeter defense issues that surfaced in February would have been the Tigers’ undoing.
On the bright side, they would have won an NCAA Tournament game in consecutive years for the first time since 1987.
No. 5 Auburn
ELIMINATED — Sweet 16
I’ll be honest. Auburn scared me to death. They would have been a popular pick to get upset in that 5-12 matchup that everyone loves. But I actually think that the Tigers, who have as much NCAA Tournament experience on that roster as any SEC team, would have thrived with that.
And because it was Auburn, it probably would have been 2 roller roaster games. Like, in the first one, Auburn falls behind 20-6 and it’s looking like it’s all she wrote. Samir Doughty is chucking 27-footers, Austin Wiley picks up 2 fouls and suddenly, the Tigers are on the ropes against East Tennessee State. But then J’Von McCormick catches fire and suddenly Auburn rattles off a 24-2 run to somehow go into the half with a lead.
A back-and-forth second half comes down to a buzzer-beater 3 from ETSU, but it hits back rim. Bruce Pearl sweats through 2 suits and Auburn fans breath a sigh of relief.
Auburn gets a Round of 32 matchup with Wisconsin, which is red hot and again an overwhelming trendy pick to make to the the Elite 8. Instead of digging an early hole, Auburn builds a big lead that looks like it’s all she wrote for Greg Gard’s squad. But this time, Wisconsin rallies back and it’s Auburn that has to get some key buckets late. Isaac Okoro has an “I’m not a freshman” moment and attacks the rim twice in the final 2 minutes to give Auburn the win.
But then No. 1-seed Kansas comes along and drops the hammer on Auburn’s hopes of repeating its Final Four run.
No. 2 Kentucky
ELIMINATED — National Championship Game
So I was planning on penciling Kentucky into the title game this year. I was pretty much going to do that regardless of who the 1-seeds were. Crazy, I know. Hey, but I did have a Michigan-Villanova national championship accurately predicted a couple of years ago.
What about the Ashton Hagans stuff? A major question mark, it was, but not one that would have prevented Kentucky from its ultimate destination. I would have trusted John Calipari to get through to the young point guard so that he could have come back and provided a spark. And even if that was an issue, I would have loved seeing the improved Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards on the big stage.
I thought the year this team had set up well for a deep March run. After 4 consecutive years without a Final Four beth, I thought Calipari was due. Between some of the in-season adversity stuff his team had to deal with and how they learned how to respond late in games, I truly thought this team had the identity of a Final Four squad.
Do I think it would have been a cakewalk to get there? No. I could have seen a thrilling Elite 8 matchup with a big, physical team like Florida State that came down to a Tyrese Maxey triple in the closing seconds.
And in a year in which the blue bloods were essentially left for dead, my guess is we would have had a Kansas-Kentucky national championship. It would have been a personal revenge game for Calipari after the 2008 debacle with Memphis. But just like 12 years ago, Calipari would have fallen just short once again. Perhaps it was for the better for Kentucky fans didn’t experience that kind of pain.
ALEXA, PLAY “ONE SHINING MOMENT” AND MAKE THE PAIN GO AWAY.