SEC basketball finished out a strong season in 2017, ultimately sending five teams to the NCAA Tournament: Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Kentucky and Florida form a clear upper class of the conference and should be able to capitalize. However, both face punishing draws in the early rounds. For example, getting Wichita State in the second round would be patently unfair for the Wildcats.
However, the rest of the conference is just in search of a win. Here is when each SEC basketball team will lose in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
Finish: Elite Eight
Many things must go right for Kentucky to earn a trip to Phoenix for the Final Four. It certainly isn’t one of John Calipari’s better teams. The vast majority of scoring comes from freshmen Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo. Counting on so many freshmen to show up on the biggest stage is a gamble.
However, the Wildcats are on a roll. Kentucky won 11 consecutive games dating back to a loss at Florida on Feb. 4. The freshmen are all playing at an exceptionally high level. However, the Wildcats’ path is rocky. Kentucky likely will face Wichita State in the second round, which will be a battle. Next, the Wildcats likely get All-American point guard Lonzo Ball and the UCLA Bruins.
If the Wildcats maneuver their way through that stretch, they will be rewarded with a more balanced North Carolina squad. It’s hard to see them defeating the Tar Heels.
Finish: Sweet Sixteen
The East segment of the March Madness bracket is absurd. In fact, six of the top 13 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s college basketball rankings are in that region. A first-round game against East Tennessee State shouldn’t be too big an issue, but then the Gators’ trouble starts.
Virginia is rated the No. 7 team in the nation by KenPom (Florida is at No. 9). However, because of style of play, UNC Wilmington is a popular upset pick. At minimum, Virginia should be worn out by Wilmington in the first round. That at least opens the door for the higher-seeded Florida to move into the Sweet 16.
But if they reach that round, the Gators run into No. 1 overall seed Villanova. Only two teams have beaten the Wildcats this season. It’s hard to see Florida becoming the third.
Finish: Round of 32
After a year hiatus, the Razorbacks are back in the NCAA Tournament for the second time under Mike Anderson. Arkansas won 8 of 9 as part of a run to the SEC Tournament championship game, where it came up just short against Kentucky. However, the Razorbacks’ draw is burdensome, especially for a team trying to acclimate to postseason play.
Seton Hall reminded the college basketball world that it’s still a factor by winning the Big East tourney in 2016. While the Pirates aren’t the same without Isaiah Whitehead, they remain an experienced team.
If Arkansas wins, it will be rewarded with No. 1-seeded North Carolina in the second round. That is where the Razorbacks’ season will end.
Finish: Round of 32
The Commodores backed into the tournament, but Vanderbilt now has a fascinating matchup. Culturally, Vanderbilt and Northwestern are high-profile, private academic institutions. Both have excellent journalism programs that I didn’t get into.
However, the Wildcats have the added pressure of being the first team in program history to make the NCAA Tournament. The Commodores made the tourney seven times under former coach Kevin Stallings. Current coach Bryce Drew also made the tournament twice with Valparaiso. Experience wins out.
At least for exactly one round, until the Commodores meet one-loss Gonzaga in the next round.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Finish: Round of 64
If this was South Carolina at the end of February, this would feel a little different. However, the Gamecocks lost 6 of 9 to finish the season, including bad losses to Ole Miss and Alabama to close out. Star guard Sindarius Thornwell deservedly received praise for his performance, but the team fell apart late.
Marquette isn’t great and its best player is a freshman. However, the Golden Eagles have more experience playing in the NCAA Tournament. They also won both games this season against SEC opponents — Vanderbilt and Georgia — by double figures. It’s a tough road for Frank Martin’s first tourney team at South Carolina.