Fairly or not, the SEC earned a reputation as being a limited basketball conference. It was generally considered the worst of the Power 5 conferences in basketball. The 2017 NCAA Tournament put that narrative to sleep.
Three SEC teams made the Elite Eight: No. 2 seed Kentucky, No. 4 seed Florida and No. 7 seed South Carolina. No other conference had multiple teams make a regional final. The Gamecocks became the seventh current SEC team to make the Final Four.
Whether expected or not, SEC basketball is now present in the national consciousness. The conference must use this opportunity as a springboard for the reputation of the entire conference.
It usually takes a major catalyst to swing the reputation of a conference, and the 2016-17 season was that for the SEC. While Kentucky and Florida stood above the rest of the conference in the regular season, the rest of the conference was surprisingly competitive.
Arkansas and South Carolina both finished 12-6 in conference play and made the NCAA Tournament. Six other teams finished between 8 and 10 SEC wins. Auburn and Mississippi State were close behind with 7 and 6, respectively. Only Missouri and LSU were well behind the pack.
Because of the success, five SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament. Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss qualified for the National Invitational Tournament, though only Ole Miss won games (including an upset of No. 1 seed Syracuse).
Four ultimately won a game in the Big Dance, with Vanderbilt choking one away because of human error in the waning seconds against Northwestern. Arkansas came within minutes of closing out an upset over North Carolina in the Round of 32. That would have completed a tournament lockout of ACC teams heading into the Sweet 16.
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, the Big 12 and ACC were generally considered the cream of the crop. The ACC sent nine teams to the tourney, by far the most of any conference. However, North Carolina was the only team to survive the first weekend.
As we learned during football bowl season, postseason success isn’t the only indicator of quality. But like the ACC in football, postseason success brings plenty of attention.
Capitalizing long term
Now that the time is here, several things must go right for this success to be carried over.
First, South Carolina can’t go away. This was an important season for the program, as SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell was a senior. However, the next two top scorers were both sophomores. South Carolina must build on its cache.
If South Carolina falls to the middle or bottom of the SEC, its tournament run will be considered a fluke. It will look like the crazy Davidson or George Mason runs. That can’t be the model South Carolina follows. The Gamecocks must look more toward Wichita State and Butler, schools that built consistent programs on the back of success. That will take continued financial investment into the program.
However, a push from the rest of SEC basketball will help. Alabama made tremendous strides under Avery Johnson. Vanderbilt and Arkansas should once again compete to be tournament teams in 2017-18. Tennessee and Mississippi State both hired coaches who had previously been to the Final Four. Hiring Will Wade at LSU and Cuonzo Martin at Missouri should make for quick turnarounds. Kentucky and Florida are not going anywhere.
The national college basketball scene is now aware: SEC teams are good enough to go on long postseason runs. That fact alone gives more credibility to the conference. However, more nationally respected teams in the conference means more opportunities for quality wins. Building in that direction for 2017-18 can firmly entrench the SEC as a national power.