Jeff Duncan: The SEC is no longer just a football league, and this NCAA tournament field proves it | lectures

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

Make no mistake, the SEC commissioner is quite proud of his league’s dominant football heritage. SEC schools have won 12 of the past 16 college football national titles, including the past 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 “an everything league,” noting the nine national championships SEC schools claimed last year.

“Everything,” though, has never included dominant basketball.

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

That’s an embarrassingly low number considering the amount of talent the league has produced during that span.

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

But things could change this year. The SEC is stronger than ever. While the conference might not boast a superpower like the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats or the 2006-2007 Florida Gators, there are more Final Four-quality teams than ever. Five SEC teams are ranked in the Top 20 of KenPom.com’s national power rankings, most of any conference in the nation.

And the NCAA Tournament selection committee acknowledged the league’s strength on Sunday when it ranked four SEC teams among the top seeds in this year’s 68-team field.

Kentucky and Auburn both earned No. 2 seeds in the Midwest and East Regions, respectively. Tennessee earned a No. 3 seeds in the south. And Arkansas was seeded fourth in the West.

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

Tennessee has won 12 of its last 13 games and owns a win 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 wins over six teams in the field and boasts one of the country’s most suffocating defenses. Tigers’ big man, Jabari Smith, might be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft this fall. It would surprise no one if Auburn made it to New Orleans, just three years after making the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance in 2019.

And longtime SEC blueblood Kentucky can never be counted out. UK routed North Carolina and Kansas earlier this year and boasts dominant big man Oscar Tshiebwe, the kind of player who can single-handedly carry a team to the title. This isn’t 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 seeded sixth in the West, could be a Final Four threat if things fall the Crimson Tide’s way. Bama is one of three teams this year to knock off top-ranked Gonzaga.

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

It’s been a while since we’ve seen this kind of representation from the SEC along the top seed lines in the NCAA Tournament. And it validates the commitment Sankey and member schools have made in trying to improve the league’s basketball profile since 2016, when the league only had three teams make the NCAA tournament field.

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

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

Veteran coaches Rick Barnes and Bruce Pearl have delivered 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 chance to make that statement emphatically to the rest of the nation. Let the bracket busting begin.

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