How do the best teams in the SEC stack up against the other top teams in the United States? It is not an easy question to answer, especially since Saturday’s Kentucky-Tennessee game might lend more clarity to the matter. Nevertheless, it is March, and that means it’s not too early to assess the top tier of the SEC and map out its March Madness prospects.
By Matt Zemek
Start with Kentucky. This is the most reliable and trustworthy SEC team. That doesn’t mean UK is guaranteed to make the Final Four, but it does mean that if you were a betting person, you would want to take the Wildcats more seriously than any other team.
Tennessee has never made the Final Four. Will Wade, as good as he is, is a young pup in the coaching world and hasn’t yet coached in the Sweet 16, let alone the Final Four. Which is the fourth-best team in the SEC right now? You could make a credible case for Ole Miss, Mississippi State, or Florida, and none of those three teams look particularly imposing but could all get on a run if the pieces fall into place.
Kentucky stands apart – not just because of the development of P.J. Washington into the elite force many people thought he could become, but because of the man responsible for developing him. Much like Roy Williams at North Carolina, it is true that Calipari coaches blue-chip talent on a regular basis, but merely having talent guarantees nothing. LSU basketball fans could tell you that, having sat through the Johnny Jones era and watched Ben Simmons fail to make the NCAA Tournament. (This is what magnifies the job Will Wade has done this season.) Calipari regularly gets his teams to improve at this time of year. Last year’s Kentucky team was a mess, but Calipari dragged it to the Sweet 16 and would have made the Elite Eight – with a great chance to make the Final Four – had the aforementioned P.J. Washington been able to make a few free throws against Kansas State.
The presence of Calipari, plus Kentucky’s defensive prowess, give the Cats a higher floor than most NCAA Tournament teams. Kentucky’s 3-point shooting is a concern, but as long as the Cats defend well, they will be in every game they play and will just need a small but timely infusion of offense to beat most of the teams they will face. The biggest variable for Kentucky – which is almost certain to be a top-two seed in the NCAA Tournament – is the other top-two seed in Kentucky’s region on Selection Sunday. At this point, UK will probably avoid Duke in its region, which in itself is a huge step toward Minneapolis for the Final Four. The list of teams one would pick over Kentucky is a short one, so with Duke not in play, Kentucky’s Final Four chances are very realistic. Big Blue is, as usual, the SEC’s best bet.
Tennessee’s Final Four chances will depend on two things: First, the outcome of the Kentucky rematch on March 2. Second, the bracket. Tennessee might fall to the 3-line on Selection Sunday if it
can’t beat Kentucky. If the Vols beat UK, they would wrap up a 2 seed and retain an outside shot at a 1 seed. More than seeding, though, a win over Kentucky would give the Vols the certain knowledge that yes, they CAN beat an elite team in their conference. That would propel them into the NCAA Tournament with a needed confidence boost.
In terms of a bracket, Tennessee would want to avoid Duke, but I could easily envision a scenario in which Kentucky gets a 1 seed in the Midwest Region and UT is forced to go to the East Region as the 2 seed with Duke as the 1 seed. That would be a nightmare for a program trying to make its first Final Four. Tennessee would love to be in the same region as Virginia. The Cavaliers are probably going to be the 1 seed in the South, but they could go East with Duke being reslotted to the South. That would not be a huge surprise at this point.
LSU is looking like a 3 seed. The Tigers would love to play North Carolina in the Sweet 16 if the Tar Heels are a 2 seed. LSU’s athletes would love an open-court game and could physically dominate Carolina in much the same way that another SEC team, Texas A&M, did last March to Roy Williams’ group. North Carolina would be a much better 2 seed for LSU to play than Michigan State, which hopes to have big man Nick Ward back in the lineup in time for the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State crushes the glass and is very nasty in the paint, negating LSU’s prowess near the rim. LSU has the athletes to make the Final Four, but the Tigers will need the right matchups in their bracket.
What about the Ole Miss-Mississippi State-Florida cluster of teams? On their best nights, they can beat nearly anyone, but the chances of getting hot and playing four straight games to get to the Final Four are remote. Florida might actually have the best makeup for a March run, given that the Gators have been the most consistent defensive team of these three. If Jalen Hudson or KeVaughn Allen can get hot at just the right time, UF could go deep. The problem? UF might be an 8 or 9 seed, which would mean a date with a 1 seed in the second round. Ole Miss could also fall into an 8-9 game. Mississippi State looks like it will avoid that trap and become a 5 or 6 seed.
According to the biggest US betting sites, Kentucky is the smart choice to win the national title. Tennessee needs to beat Kentucky to improve its Final Four odds. LSU’s ceiling is high, but the Tigers are likely to be volatile. No Cinderella Final Four runs – a la South Carolina in 2017 – are likely. That is the SEC perspective as March begins.