Is the SEC the new basketball powerhouse?

A breakdown of the SEC's basketball prowess this season, and what it could mean for Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt lost to Tennessee 67-65 in a heartbreaker in the Second Round of the 2016 SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena Nashville, TN. Photo by Ziyi Liu.

Rewind to January of 2017.

The NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament was just around the corner. Reporters everywhere began to predict which conferences would send the most teams to the big dance. None of them, however, thought the SEC would do much damage, if any, to your bracket. They expected the Big 12 and the ACC, among other serious basketball conferences, to continue their reigns.

At that time, ESPN’s Paul Sabin published an article ranking the 32 Division-I conferences using analytics like ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI: rank among all Division-I teams) and Strength of Record (SOR: given the difficulty of a team’s schedule, it is the chance a typical 25th-ranked team would have this team’s record or better). The results were not in the SEC’s favor.

“Using any of our three metrics, the SEC is the fifth-best conference,” he said. “As usual, Kentucky leads the way…Florida, Arkansas, and South Carolina all look to be NCAA tournament teams right now, but it appears unlikely to have more than two SEC teams playing deep into the tournament…”

While it’s unclear exactly what Sabin meant by “deep into the tournament”, he certainly wasn’t expecting three SEC teams to make it to the elite eight, with one team making the final four (that one team was 7th-ranked South Carolina, not 2nd-ranked Kentucky).

The Tar Heels of North Carolina came out victorious, meaning the ACC continued their reign…right?

Well, not quite.

This tournament was the beginning of what could be a monumental shift in the conference power dynamic, as the SEC had finally rebranded itself: once known as the football conference, it can now be referred to as a basketball conference. Better yet, it can be referred to as a basketball powerhouse.

Some still believe that the SEC’s success in last year’s tournament was largely attributed to luck. After all, the tournament’s unpredictability is why it remains so popular to this day. According to Sports Illustrated, if one were to treat each game like a coin flip (that is, as though each team had a 50% chance of winning their game), the odds of filling out a perfect bracket are approximately one in 9.2 quintillion.

Did the SEC get lucky in 2017? To quote Jay-Z, “You can hit a half-court shot once. That’s just the luck of the draw. If you consistently do it… that’s excellence.”

Northwestern beating Vanderbilt on a simple mishap by Matthew Fisher-Davis? That is pure luck. The Southeastern Conference’s tournament success? Just five weeks through the 2017-2018 season, it’s become quite clear that it was excellence, rather than luck, that propelled the SEC. Let’s return to present-day college basketball.

Currently, four SEC teams rank in the Associated Press’ top-25: Florida (5), Texas A&M (7), Kentucky (8), and Tennessee (24). Meanwhile, the ACC’s five teams safely places them in the first tier, above both the SEC and Big-12. After Florida’s upset loss to Loyola-Chicago, the SEC could fall out of the fourth tier next week. Fortunately, the NCAA selection committee doesn’t rely on AP polls.

Instead, the selection committee relies heavily on RPI. RPI (or Ratings Percentage Index) is a measure of how a team performed given the strength of its schedule, regardless of their preseason expectations. The top 25 teams in terms of RPI, the stat that matters most, contains six SEC teams, two more than the second-best conferences (ACC and Big East). These rankings have even been updated to include Florida’s upset loss.

That, folks, is excellence.

In the eyes of a Vanderbilt fan, this may seem pointless. In fact, it may even seem like a tease that the SEC is reaching a pinnacle one year before the Commodores can deploy two lethal five-star recruits in Darius Garland and Simi Shittu.

So why is this relevant to the struggling Vanderbilt Commodores, who have begun the season by losing twice as many games as they’ve won?

On the surface, it may seem like a curse. Clearly, the Commodores have gotten off to a rough start. Furthermore, their upcoming schedule will be no crystal stair, as they have many games scheduled against intimidating SEC teams.

I’d like invite you to reread the aforementioned information. Does it seem like a blessing yet? Because if the SEC is truly this good, it should.

As a member of an elite basketball conference, the Commodores will have ample opportunities to pull off big upsets and hone in on that coveted tournament berth. It seems impossible for them to receive an automatic invite as SEC champions, but an at-large bid is not out of the question. Once again, a key factor in determining an at-large bid (a bid that is not automatically granted from winning your conference) is RPI. What better way is there to improve your RPI than to defeat a few big-time teams?

Don’t lose hope yet, Commodore faithful.

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Simon Gibbs (‘21) writes for the sports section of the Vanderbilt Hustler. In his spare time, Simon enjoys reminiscing on the few seasons when the Mets were good, rewatching The Office, and eating Chipotle.

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