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Mark Bradley

Surprising SEC hasn’t yet lost in this Big Dance

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The 11th-seeded Vols are still dancing. (Chuck Burton/AP)

The 11th-seeded Vols are still dancing. (Chuck Burton/AP)

The SEC was rewarded with only three bids to the NCAA tournament, and one of those came with an asterisk: Tennessee was made to play a First Four game in Dayton to gain admission to the round of 64. This isn’t to say the committee slighted the SEC. On the contrary, the league got what its performance deserved.

Only two SEC teams — Florida and Georgia — exceeded expectations. Florida did it by a lot, rising to become the nation’s top-ranked team; Georgia did it by a little, going 12-6 in conference play after being 6-6 in non-conference games. Kentucky, ranked No. 1 in preseason, contrived to lose 10 games and fall out of the Associated Press Top 25. Tennessee wasn’t as good as it should have been, and neither were Arkansas, Missouri and LSU. According to RPI, the SEC finished as the nation’s seventh-best conference, which is pretty awful.

Less awful is how those three SEC teams that did gain entrance to the Big Dance have performed. All three are still going. Florida should reach the Final Four without undue difficulty. Kentucky and Tennessee could meet for the Midwest Regional title. The Gators figured out how to play a while ago; the Wildcats and Volunteers are just now doing so, but better late than never, huh?

Six conferences drew more bids than the SEC’s three. No conference has more teams remaining than the SEC’s three. The ACC has lost five of its six, the Pac-12 four of its seven, the Atlantic 10 five of its six, the Big East four of its four.

The SEC’s problem wasn’t so much talent — Kentucky is at worst the nation’s second-most gifted team, and Tennessee is among the top 10 — as the failure to maximize manpower. That’s how Georgia, with its modest resources, managed to go 5-1 against Arkansas, Missouri and LSU, all of which had much better players. But that lack of talent ultimately doomed the Bulldogs to the NIT, and they were eliminated in Round 2 at home by Louisiana Tech, which led by 26 points after 12 1/2 minutes Saturday.

We spent most of the season asking, “Why aren’t these SEC teams any better?” With Kentucky and Tennessee, we’re seeing why this question kept being asked. Driven partly by desperation, those two teams have started to act like actual teams, with the upshot being that nobody would relish playing either one right now.

From myajc.com, our premium site: Mercer is gone, but the SEC is still dancing.



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