There used to be a simple formula for making the NCAA Tournament from the SEC — finish with a winning record in league play.
Consider the following: From 1997 through 2008, 57 of the 58 SEC teams that had a winning league record (and were eligible) played in the NCAA Tournament. (Tennessee went 9–7 in 2003 and did not receive a bid. Georgia went 11–5 in 2003 but was ineligible in the wake of the Jim Harrick scandal.) During that 12-year stretch, seven 8–8 teams and two 7-9 teams received at-large invitations.
This trend stopped abruptly in the 2008-09 season, when only three of the six SEC teams with winning conference records were included in the NCAA Tournament. From ’09 through last season, only 34 of the 55 SEC teams with a winning league mark have played in the NCAA Tournament. And during this period, only one team (Tennessee in 2011) received an at-large bid with a .500 record.
There have been two significant events in the league since the decline began — John Calipari took over at Kentucky prior to the 2009-10 season and the league expanded from 12 to 14 teams before the ’12-13 season — but neither offers a good explanation as to why the SEC has been sending so few teams to the NCAA Tournament.
Maybe it’s as simple as this: The league hasn’t been good over the last decade.
In any case, times appear to be changing. Last season, the SEC sent five teams to the NCAA (for only the third time in the last nine years), and it would be a significant surprise if that number is not higher in 2017-18. Kentucky, Texas A&M and Florida appear to be locks, and as many as five other teams could be in position to receive good news on Selection Sunday.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
John Calipari will have his youngest team yet — seriously — but the Wildcats are loaded with talent both on the perimeter and in the paint. Lack of experience could be this team’s only issue.
Two impact transfers (Egor Koulechov from Rice and Jalen Hudson from Virginia Tech) will join veteran guard KeVaughn Allen to lead a talented Florida team that should challenge Kentucky for SEC supremacy.
3. Texas A&M
Billy Kennedy’s Aggies are loaded in the frontcourt thanks to Robert Williams’ decision to return to school, but they must solve their backcourt issues to emerge as a serious threat to win the league.
Avery Johnson continues to add top-end talent. Freshman guard Collin Sexton will be one of the nation’s most exciting players.
Bruce Pearl is 16–38 in the league in three seasons at Auburn. He now has enough talent — and experience — to make the Tigers relevant in the SEC.
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Luke Kornet will be missed — especially on defense — but Bryce Drew will lean on seniors Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis and Jeff Roberson to lead the Commodores back to the NCAA Tournament.
Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon give Mike Anderson two veteran guards to run his fast-paced attack. The Hogs will need someone to step up and provide scoring around the basket.
Missouri’s decision to hire Cuonzo Martin has paid immediate dividends. Michael Porter Jr., a former Washington signee, could be the best player in the nation.
9. Ole Miss
The Rebels are loaded with perimeter scorers but don’t appear to have a ready-made replacement for Sebastian Saiz in the paint.
Yante Maten becomes the primary option now that J.J. Frazier — who seemingly took every big shot for the Bulldogs — has graduated.
Grant Williams emerged as a surprisingly productive freshman last year. He will need to carry the load inside once again.
12. South Carolina
Frank Martin’s Final Four team lost Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and P.J. Dozier. It’s time for big man Chris Silva to step up.
13. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs have the talent to make a move, but Ben Howland has yet to find the right mix in Starkville.
Will Wade’s first season could be rough, but he has already done a good job on the recruiting trail.
Player of the Year: Michael Porter Jr., Missouri
Best Defensive Player: Robert Williams, Texas A&M
Most Underrated Player: Jeff Roberson, Vanderbilt
Newcomer of the Year: Michael Porter Jr., Missouri
ATHLON SPORTS’ ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM
Kevin Knox, Fr., G/F, Kentucky
Yante Maten, Sr., F, Georgia
Michael Porter Jr., Fr., F, Missouri
Robert Williams, So., F, Texas A&M
ATHLON SPORTS’ ALL-SEC SECOND TEAM
Kevaughn Allen, Jr., G, Florida
Hamidou Diallo, Fr., G, Kentucky
Tyler Davis, Jr., C, Texas A&M
P.J. Washington, Fr., F, Kentucky
Quinndary Weatherspoon, Jr., G, Mississippi State
ATHLON SPORTS’ ALL-SEC THIRD TEAM
Terence Davis, Jr., G, Ole Miss
Mustapha Heron, So., G, Auburn
Braxton Key, So., G/F, Alabama
Austin Wiley, So., C, Auburn
Grant Williams, So., F, Tennessee