Sweet 16: SEC's Three and What it Means

The conference is tied for the lead for Sweet 16 teams. Here's the context for it.

After months of mockery, hand wringing, and a million #SECBasketballFever hashtags, the Sweet 16 is here and it has three SEC teams in it. That number matches the Pac-12 and Big Ten for the most remaining teams. It's three times more than the ACC has.

We're going to need some context for this.

The first question is probably whether the conference should have had more teams in the field. After all, if Tennessee and Kentucky are doing what they're doing, they might have been underseeded as a result of Selection Committee pessimism for the conference. If so, then someone else might have deserved to get in that didn't.

For that, we can look at the NIT. The conference had a pair of 2-seeds (Missouri and Georgia), a 3-seed (Arkansas) and a 5-seed (LSU). LSU is so far down the seeding that it was never a realistic possibility. Arkansas won its first game over a 6-seed and is still alive, but it pretty decisively played itself out of the Big Dance with a pair of losses to sub-.500 teams when it really mattered most.

As for those 2-seeds? They both lost to 3-seeds in the second round. If actual postseason results are how we're judging tournament bid decisions—and that's not necessarily a valid way to go about it—then it's hard to say who from outside the Field of 68 has proved the committee wrong.

Plus if you go by seeding, the SEC's teams only have one real marquee win between them—Kentucky's victory over Wichita State. Florida beat a 16-seed and a 9-seed, UK beat a 9-seed in the first round, and Tennessee beat an 11-seed, a 6-seed, and a 14-seed. Florida won't have the chance to beat anyone better than a 4-seed in its region, and if you go off of the most popular picks, it won't face anything higher than a 4-seed the rest of the way with Michigan State and then Louisville being in its path.

A better way to look at it is not from the seedings but rather a more rigorous rankings of the teams. Let's put the games in KenPom ratings terms. The only stinker was No. 1 Florida's 12-point win over No. 173 Albany. It followed that up with a 16-point win over No. 16 Pitt. No. 11 Kentucky first pushed its way past No. 42 Kansas State for a seven-point win, and then it upset No. 5 Wichita State by one point yesterday. No. 6 Tennessee needed overtime to gut out a win over No. 30 Iowa, but then it won easily over No. 56 UMass and No. 85 Mercer.

So really, if the SEC's results so far prove anything, it's that Ken Pomeroy's rating system is a better judge of teams than the Selection Committee is. But we knew that already.

I do think that the committee had a dim view of the league and adjusted its seedings accordingly. It obviously had no disrespect for the Gators—it literally could not have given Florida a higher seed—but an 8-seed for UK and an 11-seed for Tennessee in no way reflect how good those teams are. Both of them are way down there in luck, with the Wildcats sitting on No. 274 and Tennessee at No. 325. Simply put, they both lost more games than they should have given their level of play. If anything, these results emphasize how disappointing the regular season was for the league outside of Gainesville.

So what is the proper context for the fact that the Sweet 16 has three SEC teams in it? The selection committee probably made the right call when it came to who got in and who didn't, but it made poor decisions in seeding two of the three teams. As a result, a pair of pretty good teams ended up with an 8-seed and 11-seed, and they've outperformed their seedings accordingly. Plus, Tennessee got some good breaks in that after playing a similarly underseeded Iowa, it got a drastically overseeded UMass and a 14-seed in Mercer.

Sometimes the facts don't really contribute to an overarching narrative. Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee still being alive in the Big Dance says nothing about South Carolina or Mississippi State. It says nothing about the conference's second tier, which is writing its own story in the NIT. It says something about the Selection Committee, but it's nothing we didn't already know.

Congratulations are in order for the Gators, Wildcats, and Volunteers, but don't take that to mean more than it does.

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