The Southeastern Conference has garnered a reputation for being the predominant football entity in college sports. Until Florida State won the BCS title in 2014, it had been a SEC school hoisting the crystal ball after college football’s final game for the previous seven seasons.
“S-E-C!, S-E-C!,” fans would chant when watching any team from the southeastern conference win a game. It didn’t even have to be your team. When bowl season came around, it was SEC fans vs. the world and everyone took pride in the SEC dominating the college football world.
Southerners love their football and it shows. SEC football is more than a game. It’s a way of life, a religion almost and Saturday’s in the fall are holy days of obligation filled with beer, barbeque, sundresses, cowboy boots and some good old-fashioned football.
One thing the SEC is not and has not been known for is basketball. Only Arkansas, Kentucky and Florida have ever been crowned national champions from the conference.
The conference was comically bad in 2014. A hashtag (#SECBasketballFever) spread like wildfire on Twitter during the season, poking fun at how bad SEC games were. Only three teams (Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee) were ranked inside Ken Pomeroy’s top-11 teams and only those three teams would garner an invitation to the NCAA tournament. Even then Tennessee, an 11-seed, had to essentially play their way into the tournament (beating Iowa 78-65 in overtime) in what the NCAA technically calls the “First Four,” the official first round of the NCAA tournament.
Florida didn’t help the league to look better. The Gators finished the season with a perfect 18-0 conference record. As former No. 1 teams in the country like Syracuse lost to inferior league opponents, people pointed to the SEC as a way to diminish Florida’s accomplishment. As much as playing in the SEC can help a team in football, the inverse was happening on the hardwood.
But was it really as bad as people made it out to be?
“I’ll go back to saying this,” Billy Donovan said on Monday. “There are teams in our league, like a Missouri, they were right there, and LSU, that really came close to ‑‑ we’re right there, Arkansas, three teams there, and I said this after the SEC championship game, that I think that there’s teams that are not in this tournament that are from our league that could get in this tournament and really win some games.”
And win they did. Tennessee took down Iowa to move to the second round, and then beat a favored UMass team, before smashing Cinderella’s slipper and besting Mercer by 20 points on Sunday. Florida held on against Albany and cruised to victory against Pittsburgh. Kentucky knocked off Kansas State before ending Wichita State’s 35-game winning streak and national championship aspirations. After the first weekend of March Madness, the SEC stood atop the brackets with a perfect 7-0 record.
“I’m sure some people are pretty surprised at three SEC teams,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “Because all I heard all year was that the SEC was in a down year and it was a weak SEC. It’s pretty cool to see three SEC teams in the Sweet 16.”
Before we go off and crown the conference college basketball’s powerhouse, it is important to step back and take the success in context.
“I’m not surprised because Kentucky is a talented team and it’s all about matchup,” Senior forward Will Yeguete said. “Tennessee is a really good team and they really have size with Stokes and Maymon. That’s no easy matchup. If you just find a really good matchup in the NCAA tournament, and it only takes one game, and the best team to win in that game advances.”
What the Conference has been able to accomplish over the span of the first five game is more about individual matchups than overall conference supremacy.
It also does something else. It completely and irrevocably legitimizes Florida running the table in the SEC. No team had ever won 18 league games in a season (Kentucky went 16-0 in 2012). The feat was filled with blowouts and nail bitters. Detractors pointed to a narrow overtime wins against Arkansas, Auburn and Alabama and say, “see, Florida is barely beating these bad teams, they’re not that good, it’s just the conference.”
The road doesn’t get any easier. Kentucky will square off with 4-seed Louisville, Tennessee will tackle 2-seed Michigan and Florida will face a familiar tournament foe in UCLA.
Was the SEC down in 2014? Maybe. Were they the best conference in college basketball? Absolutely not.
But are they earning more respect with each win? You bet.
“I’ve always had great respect for our league,” Donovan said. “I think our league can play with any league in the country.”
They certainly have through the first three rounds of the tournament and if they continue to stockpile wins maybe the rest of the country will have the same respect for the conference that Donovan does.