To say that the SEC is improving would suggest that there are more than five or six solid teams in the conference. Not only are there few successful teams in the conference, but only two can register as elite programs: Kentucky and Florida. These two teams are as consistent as it gets for the SEC. The rest continue to waiver and change through the years.
Yes, three of the five SEC teams that made the NCAA Tournament advanced to the Elite Eight. No, that does not mean the conference in its entirety is making progress. Three teams making a run in the tournament does not create success for the whole SEC. The NCAA Tournament itself is not a good litmus test of a team’s strength. The teams in the tournament quite literally take it game by game or they are at risk of slipping up and losing to anyone. Also, the way the NCAA Tournament is set up creates an easy road for some teams. Case and point: Florida.
No. 4 seed Florida started off their tournament against No. 13 seed East Tennessee State. Although ETSU was heavily outmatched in talent and size, it still managed to be down just 1 point at halftime. However, junior forward Devin Robinson was hot for the Gators and he tallied 24 points and 7 rebounds. In the end, Florida won 80-65 to move on to its round of 32 matchup with the No. 5 seed Virginia Cavaliers, who were 23-10 coming into the game.
The Gators managed to hold the Cavaliers to just 17 points in the first half and played stingy defense, holding them to just 30 percent shooting from the field. Robinson once again led Florida with a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds in the 65-39 blowout. There was a clear reason for the terrible play from Virginia. Their leader in rebounds, blocks and steals for the team, Isiah Wilkins, was out with strep throat. Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett called him the “heart and soul of the defense.”
The Gators finally met their first through-and-through solid team when they played the No. 8 seed Wisconsin Badgers, fresh off a win over the defending champion Villanova Wildcats. Once again, Florida managed to dodge a bullet by not having to play the No. 1 seed, and the Gators tabbed an 84-83 win in overtime on a buzzer beater. Florida met its fate when they played their fellow SEC member South Carolina, and were victim to the Gamecocks’ swarming defense in the 77-70 loss.
As seen by the path that the Gators had, it is fairly easy to receive an easy road to the Sweet 16 and beyond. A certain amount of the layout in the NCAA Tournament is chalked up to luck. Does that mean that every team in the SEC got lucky this year with their path? No. Kentucky and South Carolina both had pretty tough roads in the tournament, but three teams’ success in the tournament does not spell success for the whole conference.
The SEC is still not improving by any means. The conference is still very top heavy. The top teams in the conference (Kentucky, South Carolina, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Florida) are seeing improvement, but there is not much to say about the rest of the SEC.
Edited by Robert Hughes
Featured image by Chet White, courtesy of UK Athletics