The Big 12 and ACC each traded blows trying to stake their claim as the best conference in college basketball this year. The Big Ten joined later after a dominant first weekend.
But come the Elite Eight, only one league in the country has multiple teams left standing in the 2017 NCAA Tournament: The SEC.
“We’re supposed to be a bad league,” Kentucky coach John Calipari joked after his Wildcats beat 3-seed UCLA. “That’s got to be all these other leagues, right?”
Shot fired. But it wasn’t without merit.
Kentucky beat top-three draft prospect Lonzo Ball and UCLA in the Sweet 16, as freshmen Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox combined for 60 points. The Wildcats are a perennial force atop the conference.
But behind them, two other teams make surprising runs. A game after upsetting Duke, South Carolina manhandled Baylor and All-American big man Johnathan Motley to reach the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.
A few hours later, Florida guard Chris Chiozza hit a miraculous shot to send Florida to the regional final for the first time since Billy Donovan in 2014.
— John Sabol (@John_Sabol) March 25, 2017
To reiterate, the SEC has three teams in the final eight. The ACC and Big 12 have only one. The Big Ten has a big, fat zero.The “SEC is bad at basketball” narrative has been flipped on its head.
Look at the conference. Kentucky and Florida separated themselves down the stretch, but eight other teams finished between eight and 12 wins this season. Arkansas and Vanderbilt both qualified for the tournament. The Razorbacks even won a game and were shockingly close to upsetting North Carolina. Had that happened, the ACC would have been out of the tourney.
Granted, the bottom of the conference was especially bad. LSU and Missouri combined to go 4-32 in conference play, which is horrific. However, both programs hired promising coaches – VCU’s Will Wade and Cal’s Cuonzo Martin respectively.
For years, SEC basketball has dealt with a reputation as a one- or two-team league. Kentucky’s conference championships were seen as beating up on programs that don’t care about basketball. No longer.
Postseason success isn’t a perfect indicator (just ask SEC football), but the SEC has done a heck of a lot more than the critics expected. SEC basketball deserves recognition – it’s a big boy conference now, right where it belongs.