After an opening weekend with few stunning upsets but several close games, South Carolina earned a program-defining win to join Kentucky and Florida remain as the only SEC teams left in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s not surprising to see the Wildcats and Gators, who have a combined three titles since 2006, moving on to the Sweet 16. The Wildcats have become an annual contender under coach John Calipari, and the Gators are only three years removed from a Final Four appearance.
Late Sunday night, however, the Gamecocks earned their first Sweet 16 berth since the tournament expanded in 1985 with a massive 88-81 upset of No. 2 Duke.
The South Carolina locker room looked like a whole lot of fun after their win over Duke. pic.twitter.com/vKI2eqvw3G
— ☇ASAP Sports News☇ (@ASAP_SportsNews) March 20, 2017
So, now the question must be asked: How does this year’s tournament compare to others for the SEC?
While the SEC has long been considered the deepest conference in college football, that same can’t be said about basketball. In fact, Kentucky was the lone bright spot until Billy Donovan helped Florida compete at a national level, winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.
To put it into perspective just how top-heavy the SEC has historically been in basketball, consider that Kentucky and Florida have combined for 118 of the SEC’s 229 NCAA Tournament victories since 1985. When 51.5 percent of a conference’s tournament wins come from just two teams, that’s not a great basketball conference.
None of this should be earth-shattering news for most fans. With five teams in this year’s tournament, however, the SEC had the opportunity to make some noise.
Had Vanderbilt not shot itself in the foot down the stretch against Northwestern, all five of the conference’s representatives would have likely advanced past the opening round. The SEC hasn’t had five teams in the Round of 32 since 2006, when Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee made the cut.
As it were, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina gave the SEC its most second-round teams since 2007.
The weekend started well. Florida took care of business in what was expected to be a great matchup between two talented teams, dominating Virginia 65-39. Kentucky’s contest against Wichita State wasn’t quite so easy, but the Wildcats’ defense came up big and helped secure a 65-62 victory.
Of the four teams in this year’s mix, Florida and Kentucky were the safest bets. Not only did they have the best records in the conference, but history was on their side. The SEC has made 61 appearances in the Sweet 16 since 1985, 30 of those have come from the Gators and Wildcats.
— Chat Sports NCAA (@ChatNCAA) March 19, 2017
What was truly going to determine whether this year would be a special one for the conference was the play of Arkansas and South Carolina. Arkansas, of course, won the 1994 national title. Both programs have enjoyed moderate success in recent years, but they faced two true blue bloods in No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Duke, respectively.
The Razorbacks gave the top-ranked Tar Heels everything they could handle, even holding a 65-60 lead with under three minutes remaining. North Carolina ended the game on a 12-0 run, however, and Arkansas became the second SEC team knocked out of the tournament.
A poor first half for South Carolina, offensively, looked like it would doom the Gamecocks to the same fate, but their ferocious defense kept Duke within reach at halftime. After scoring just 23 points in the first half, South Carolina nearly tripled that output in the second half, scoring 65 points on 71 percent shooting to topple the Blue Devils.
The victory was not only the greatest in Gamecocks’ history, but also one of the conference’s biggest tournament upsets.
Among the others worth remembering: LSU becoming the first 11th seed to reach the Final Four in 1986, which included victories over No. 3 Memphis, No. 2 Georgia Tech and No. 1 Kentucky; No. 11 Auburn’s victory over No. 3 Kansas in 1985; and No. 8 Georgia’s upset of top-seeded Purdue in 1996.
It was also an important one for the SEC. Against a marquee opponent, and one hated by a good portion of the country, a team not named Kentucky or Florida earned a statement win.
Notably, it also left the ACC with only one team left in the tournament. The conference that most people consider to be the best in college basketball was dealt a major blow by the conference that many believe to be among the worst.
With South Carolina’s win, the SEC will have at least three schools in the Sweet 16 for just the 10th time since 1985, and the first since 2014.
|Year||SEC Sweet 16 teams||Best SEC finish|
|1985||Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn||All lost Sweet 16|
|1986||Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn, LSU||LSU, L Final Four|
|1987||LSU, Alabama, Florida||LSU, L Elite Eight|
|1993||Kentucky, Arkansas, Vanderbilt||Kentucky, L Final Four|
|1995||Arkansas, Kentucky, Miss. State||Arkansas, L NCAA final|
|1996||Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, Miss. State||Kentucky, NCAA champion|
|1999||Kentucky, Florida, Auburn||Kentucky, L Elite Eight|
|2000||Florida, LSU, Tennessee||Florida, L NCAA final|
|2007||Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt||Florida, NCAA champion|
|2014||Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee||Kentucky, L NCAA final|
|2017||Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina||TBD|
This is a good omen for the conference. Of the past nine times that three SEC schools advanced past the second round, five have ended with a team playing in the national championship game. Only Florida’s 2007 squad and the 1996 Wildcats have cut down the nets when joined in the Sweet 16 by two members of the conference.
The Gamecocks’ victory ensures that this tournament has been a successful one for the SEC. Whether it will be a memorable one depends on what happens Friday.
If the conference delivers a clean sweep, it would be the first time since 1986 that three SEC programs advance to the Elite 8.
Now that’s something worth dancing about.