If the SEC compiled a “talk to me nicely” list of the people who counted out their conference, there would seem to be no end to the papyrus roll of names. In modern terms, it wouldn’t fit in a TikTok video.
South Carolina went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the nation and is the heavy favorite to win its second straight title. No one questioned that. But as they rounded up conference wins to a hum of 26.1 average points per win, the chatter around the strength of the rest of the SEC was constant. It’s been a bad year for the SEC. The competition is not that great. How do you measure that a group of teams has to play against a team that has separated itself so much from the rest? Can they all really win in March?
Balls don’t lie and neither do results. The SEC is a collective 7-1 through the first round, led by No. 11 seed Mississippi State to become the first First Four team in tournament history to reach the second round. The Bulldogs were the first game of this NCAA tournament and started a postseason that could start and end with the victory of an SEC team.
Mississippi State’s Sam Purcell, a freshman head coach who spent nine years building the Louisville program into a Final Four contender as an assistant to Jeff Walz, said his phone started exploding with messages after that first win.
“Do you know who it was? It was every SEC head coach,” Purcell said after ousting Illinois, an impressive Big Ten team on the rise. “We have a common thread and they’re all like, ‘Sam, you set the tone, man.’ Good luck.’ And again, it’s a special conference because you have special people.”
A day after the Bulldogs advanced, Purcell published his “talk to me nicely” list of athletes and presidents (current and former) who had not chosen his team to win. It was in jest, but sounds like a goodbye shot to all those coaches on the wire.
We are as competitive as all of you in March. Maybe better.
Mississippi State (22-10, 9-7), which finished fifth in the SEC, was one of only four teams this season with a single-digit margin against South Carolina. They are in the top 50 in field goals and 3-point percentage, assists and blocks per game. After finishing fifth in the season’s SEC regular standings, they slipped into the tournament as the seven-team conference finals.
The Bulldogs pulled off an even bigger banger by upsetting No. 6 Creighton, the reigning medium-big favourite, in the first round. They were 11-of-19 from 3-point range, making their season high in 3s. And their chances of making it through the second weekend are solid, as No. 3 Notre Dame is without point guard Olivia Miles and works with a short bench at 1 Greenville.
Ole Miss (24-8, 11-5) was the other SEC team to stay within striking distance of South Carolina, losing by 7 in overtime last month. The Rebels were seeded eighth in a matchup that should have gone either way by seeding. Instead, Ole crushed Miss Gonzaga by 23 to face Stanford at Seattle 4.
Georgia (22-11, 9-7) joined them as double-digit seed winners, reaching No. 7 Florida State to meet Iowa in Seattle 4. Top of the table, No. 1 South Carolina, No. 3 LSU, and No. 4 LSU. 4 Tennessee all got the job done superbly on Friday. The only one of the seven teams not to do so was No. 10 Alabama in a 4-point loss to Baylor. The Crimson Tide went up, 22-4, in the first quarter, but couldn’t finish it.
The SEC took a backseat all season, while every other Power Six conference took a turn at the wheel. There was the wild top-down competitiveness of the ACC, going 6-2 in the first round. One of their losses was to an SEC squad. “Pac-12 after dark,” as it is affectionately known by East Coast fans, caused a stir during the conference title game. They went 4-2.
The Big 12 – well, maybe the SEC was always above them. The conference fielded a surprising six teams and went 3-3, including a loss to No. 5 seed Iowa State and close to No. 7 Baylor. The Big East felt the love past UConn, but was 2-3 in the first round with all three lower seeds losing, including that L from the Bluejays.
The SEC was certainly not above the Big Ten, which had the most teams (four) placed third or better and averaged the most points in a major conference. They went 5-2, and again one of the losses was for an SEC squad.
It’s hard to look away from a conference where teams regularly reach 80 points and five teams finish in the top 15 in the category. The conference collectively averages 74 ppg, 16.1 apg, 41.4% from the floor and 33.6% from 3-point reach. Even in outbursts there was always something and someone to watch.
While we all marveled at the beauty of passes down the field, beautiful ball movement and a rain of 3s, we forgot the old adage that defense wins championships. Go ahead, ask South Carolina and Dawn Staley.
The Gamecocks (33-0) are ranked No. 1 in defensive rating (72.6), with five SEC teams in the top five in the category. LSU is sixth, Ole Miss is 15th, Mississippi State is 24th, and Georgia is 25th. Alabama is 78th and Tennessee, awarded a No. 4 seed for playing an incredibly tough schedule, is 127th.
Mississippi State was able to set the SEC’s tone for its defense, leaving Illinois nearly 20 points short of the season average. It was 4 points off the Fighting Illini’s lowest total of the season. Georgia did the same by holding down Florida State 15 and Ole Miss holding Gonzaga 23 below theirs.
A single set of games cannot really determine a best conference. Nor can a tournament where an unfortunate combination of styles can end a season. Still, the SEC has shown that it’s not a bad year. It can win in March. And we all should have spoken nicely to them not to risk hearing our names in their TikTok hype video next season.