Jeff Duncan: The SEC isn’t just a football league anymore, and this NCAA tournament ground proves it | Colleges

Greg Sankey bristles when people call the SEC “a football league.”

Make no mistake, the SEC commissioner is quite proud of his league’s dominating footballing heritage. SEC schools have won 12 of the last 16 college football national titles, including the last three by Georgia, Alabama and LSU.

But the league, Sankey said, is more than just a gridiron goliath. At the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament in Tampa, Fla., over the weekend, Sankey called it “all league,” noting the nine national championships SEC schools won last year. .

“Everything”, however, never included mainstream basketball.

It’s been a decade since the last SEC national hoops title (Kentucky in 2012). Worse, the conference has only managed to make four combined Final Four appearances in that span: Auburn (2019); South Carolina (2017); Florida and Kentucky (2014).

It’s an embarrassing number considering the amount of talent the league has produced in that time.

The 68-team field for the NCAA Tournament was announced Sunday. As always, there are quite a few Louisiana players in the tournament. …

But things could change this year. The SEC is stronger than ever. While the conference may not boast a superpower like the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats or the 2006-07 Florida Gators, there are more Final Four quality teams than ever. Five SEC teams are ranked in the Top 20 of KenPom.comnational power rankings, most of any conference in the nation.

And the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee recognized the league’s strength on Sunday when it named four SEC teams among the top seeds in this year’s 68-team field.

Both Kentucky and Auburn earned the No. 2 seeds in the Midwest and East regions, respectively. Tennessee earned a No. 3 seed in the South. And Arkansas was ranked fourth in the West.

Indeed, this could be the year we see an SEC team other than Kentucky or Florida win a national title. Several teams in the league are good enough to qualify for the Final Four at Caesars Superdome next month.

Tennessee has won 12 of its last 13 games and has a victory over No. 1 seed Arizona on its resume.

Arkansas is almost as hot as the Vols, having won 14 of its last 17 games. The Razorbacks have a tricky first-round matchup with Vermont, but they have a great shot to make a second consecutive Elite Eight appearance.

Auburn has won more than six teams on the field and has one of the most stifling defenses in the country. Tigers big man Jabari Smith could be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft this fall. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Auburn traveled to New Orleans, just three years after making the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance in 2019.

And the SEC’s longtime Kentucky Blueblood can never be counted. The UK routed North Carolina and Kansas earlier this year and has dominating big man Oscar Tshiebwe, the kind of player who can single-handedly lead a team to the title. It’s not one of John Calipari’s most talented teams, but the Wildcats have few weaknesses, as evidenced by their glowing power ranking metrics.

Even Alabama, which is ranked sixth in the West, could be a Final Four threat if things go wrong for Crimson Tide. “Bama is one of three teams this year to knock out top-ranked Gonzaga.

LSU, which fired head coach Will Wade on Saturday and stumbled in the second half of the season, looks like the only potential SEC team on the field.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen this kind of SEC representation along the front lines of the NCAA Tournament. And it validates the commitment Sankey and member schools have made in trying to raise the league’s basketball profile since 2016, when the league had just three teams on the NCAA tournament court.

The SEC finally got serious about basketball a few years ago and began using some of its football largesse to invest in improving its facilities and hiring quality basketball coaches. .

Nate Oats and Eric Musselman quickly improved the Alabama and Arkansas programs and are rising stars in the coaching ranks.

Veteran coaches Rick Barnes and Bruce Pearl have had sustained success at Tennessee and Auburn, respectively.

The result: SEC basketball is no longer Kentucky and the 13 dwarfs.

This NCAA Tournament is the league’s opportunity to make that statement emphatically to the rest of the nation. Let the unhooking of parentheses begin.

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