March Madness: Ranking the SEC's 10 most unlikely Final Four teams
Sure, they call it March Madness. But plenty of years, it’s March sameness. The big dogs eat, and everybody else goes home pretty quickly. Unless they don’t.
In the three and a half decades since the NCAA field expanded to 64 teams, the NCAA Tournament has produced its share of bracket-busters. Here are the 10 most unlikely SEC Final Four teams since 1985.
(Spoiler alert: One of them plays Saturday.)
10. 1997 Kentucky (35-5, lost in Final to Arizona, No. 1 seed)
OK, this is a bit of a reach. This is the only team better than a No. 3 seed on my list, and it’s here in part because many of the SEC Final Four teams were definitely NOT unlikely (1994 Arkansas? 1996 Kentucky? 2006 Florida?). But this was an incredibly overachieving team.
Yes, UK won the national title in 1996. They then lost Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Antoine Walker and Mark Pope. Jeff Sheppard wouldn’t play in 1997. Scott Padgett wasn’t eligible when the year started. And the best player who did return for Kentucky, Derek Anderson, blew out his ACL in January. Kentucky just patched the holes and kept rolling — almost to the NCAA title.
9. 1994 Florida (29-8, lost in Semifinal to Duke, No. 3 seed)
Florida was a talented group, but the school had never made the Final Four and the SEC’s focus was on the Arkansas team that won the NCAA title that season. The Gators had a pair of tough veteran guards (Dan Cross and Craig Brown) and post presences Dametri Hill and Andrew DeClercq. They weren’t ranked in the Top 25 until the end of January, but they steadily climbed and won regional games over UConn and Boston College to make the Final Four.
8. 2011 Kentucky (29-9, lost in Semifinal to UConn, No. 4 seed)
John Calipari’s second UK team lost a ton of talent — John Wall, Boogie Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe, etc., and replaced them with a bunch of talented, but inexperienced freshmen. Sound familiar? Led by Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, UK was good enough to earn a No. 4 seed, but bad enough to lose 3 of 4 SEC games in one stretch in February. They also got a hellacious NCAA bracket, but upset top seed Ohio State and No. 2 seed North Carolina to make the Final Four.
7. 2006 LSU (27-9, lost in Semifinal to UCLA, No. 4 seed)
LSU certainly looks like a Final Four team in hindsight. The squad was led by high-scoring senior guard Darrel Mitchell, post force Glen “Big Baby” Davis, and stellar freshmen Tasmin Mitchell and Tyrus Thomas. But at the time, the Tigers were a good-not-great team that was late on the scene and unranked for most of the season. The Tigers lost to Houston and Northern Iowa in nonconference play, and bowed out in the SEC Tournament semifinals. But in the Big Dance, they upset an underachieving Duke team and outlasted Texas to earn a Final Four spot.
6. 2000 Florida (29-8, lost in Final to Michigan State, No. 5 seed)
Florida had plenty of talent, led by Mike Miller. The Gators were kind of ahead of their time, as their first nine players included only two upperclassmen. Florida hung around the top 10 for most of the season, but went into the Tournament in a slump. It lost by 15 to Kentucky in the final game of the regular season, and then dropped an SEC Tournament game to Auburn.
After a heart-stopping overtime win in their first round NCAA game against Butler, the Gators rolled past Illinois, Duke, Oklahoma State and North Carolina before losing the title game to Tom Izzo and Michigan State. But that’s March, isn’t it? A team that lost 2 of 3 entering the tournament barely survives a 5 vs. 12 game and then rolls some of the top teams in college basketball.
5. 1996 Mississippi State (26-8, lost in Semifinal to Syracuse, No. 5 seed)
State was a preseason top 10 team, but struggled in midseason, losing 4 of 5 games at one point in January. Guard Darryl Wilson, forward Dontae’ Jones and center Erick Dampier meshed down the stretch, previewing their NCAA showing by upsetting future champion Kentucky in the SEC Tournament final. The Bulldogs beat UConn and Cincinnati in their region to make the Final Four. It’s hard to imagine that State was outside the Top 25 for most of the season considering how tough it was down the NCAA stretch run.
4. 2019 Auburn (30-9, still playing, No. 5 seed)
The Auburn team that was in the top 10 for most of November and December bottomed out badly in January and February. A 3-game losing streak in late January and 3 losses in 5 games in February, capped by a 27-point loss at Kentucky, rendered Auburn as probably the SEC’s most disappointing team. Until it wasn’t.
Bryce Brown and Jared Harper and the gang who can’t miss have delivered a dozen consecutive wins, the last three over higher-seeded foes with massive NCAA traditions — Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky. Those three are at home, and Auburn is still dancing.
3. 2014 Kentucky (29-11, lost in Final to UConn, No. 8 seed)
Kentucky finished a full 6 games behind Florida in the SEC standings, losing 3 of the team’s final 4 regular-season games. A freshman-led squad (surprise) featuring Julius Randle, James Young and the Harrison twins then caught fire in the Big Dance, knocking off top seed Wichita State, in-state rival Louisville, and Big Ten powers Michigan and Wisconsin, all with late-game heroics. They didn’t close the deal in the Final, but still delivered an improbable March run.
2. 2017 South Carolina (26-11, lost in Semifinal to Gonzaga , No. 7 seed)
Long before Sindarius Thornwell, P.J. Dozier, Chris Silva, Duane Notice and Maik Kotsar became March Madness heroes, South Carolina looked dead and buried as a basketball team. Carolina lost 6 of its final 9 games heading into the Tournament. An uninspired 11-point loss to Alabama in their first SEC Tournament game left the Gamecocks as a team most SEC prognosticators figured would lose their first NCAA game to Marquette. Probably badly. Instead, the won, then took down Duke, Baylor and Florida en route to the school’s first Final Four.
1.1986 LSU (26-12, lost in Semifinal to Louisville, No. 11 seed)
LSU’s 1986 season — before the NCAA Tournament — was like a hypothetical case of what else could go wrong.
Jerry Reynolds left school early for the NBA. Multiple players were academically ineligible. Tito Horford either left or quit the team. The team was hit with a chicken pox outbreak. LSU lost 7 of their final 11 regular-season games to finish 9-9 in SEC play, and took a loss in their second SEC Tournament game.
The Tigers seemed lucky to even make the NCAA field, but after a home double-overtime win over Purdue and a 2-point home victory over No. 3 seed Memphis State, LSU was in the Sweet 16. They went to Atlanta and promptly took down No. 2 seed Georgia Tech and No. 1 seed Kentucky, which had beaten LSU three times that season. LSU still ties for the honor as the highest-seeded team to reach the Final Four.