Last weekend, three Southeastern Conference basketball teams played in the Elite Eight. No other league had more than one.
On Wednesday night, six future SEC players competed in the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago — more than any other conference — and Missouri commitment Michael Porter Jr. took home the game’s MVP honors.
On Saturday night, South Carolina — the unlikeliest squad to advance to this year’s Final Four — will play Gonzaga with a trip to the national title game on the line.
“We're supposed to be a bad league,” UK Coach John Calipari said sarcastically from the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament site in Memphis a few days ago.
It’s been a pretty good March for the SEC.
The future’s looking awfully bright, too.
In the first few weeks of every season in recent years, SEC teams have suffered embarrassing losses to lower-level opponents, and the “SEC Basketball Fever” jokes have quickly spread across the Internet.
Calipari and other league coaches have defended the conference’s reputation on numerous occasions over the past few years, and no one took more glee in the SEC’s postseason success than UK’s coach.
“Don’t put three SEC teams in the Elite Eight. Noooo, not from the SEC!” gloated Calipari in an interview with CBS Sports after the Cats beat UCLA last week.
The league might have finally found a winning antidote to SEC Basketball Fever.
Around this time last year, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey announced an initiative to improve the conference’s quality of basketball, including the hiring of former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese to help fulfill that goal.
SEC teams were told to schedule better opponents outside of league play. SEC athletic directors were reminded of the league’s push for a better product on the court.
“We’re seeing it right now,” Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said two weekends ago, one day before his Razorbacks nearly knocked off top seed North Carolina. “I think it's starting to scratch the surface, when you talk about recruiting, the coaches that are in place.
“Three teams in the tournament last year. We got five this year. So I think it's just a sign of some great things to come, and we'll be one of the better conferences in the country.”
The SEC has plenty of successful coaches. Calipari is a Hall of Famer. Mississippi State’s Ben Howland has been to three Final Fours. Tennessee’s Rick Barnes has been to one, and South Carolina’s Frank Martin is there this weekend.
Anderson, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl and Florida’s Mike White have all been to the Elite Eight. Alabama’s Avery Johnson was a successful NBA coach and seemingly has the Tide on the right track. The list goes on.
Those coaches are also getting some top recruits — the lifeblood of any college program — and that was on display this week at the McDonald’s Game.
Porter, who likely will end the 2017 recruiting cycle as the No. 1 player in the class, was ranked by Rivals.com as the top performer during the week’s festivities.
“It’s a tough league,” he said of the SEC. “People were saying it was down this year, but they put three teams in the Elite Eight, so it’s definitely a tough league. I’m looking forward to playing in it.
“It’s on it’s way up even more.”
Alabama signee Collin Sexton — the No. 1 point guard in the 247Sports rankings — wowed fans with his flashy play in Wednesday night’s game. He set a Nike summer league record for scoring last year. He was MVP of the star-studded Team USA U17 squad last summer, too.
“People think the SEC is a football conference and that’s all we’re about. But basketball, we can really do it,” Sexton said. “I feel like we’ve just been shocking a lot people in the SEC, and opening people’s eyes. The SEC is a real good conference for basketball.”
Kentucky had four players in this year’s McDonald’s Game, more than any other school, as usual. The Cats are also still in the mix for top-10 recruits Mohamed Bamba and Kevin Knox.
And the talent doesn’t end there.
Nineteen of the top 25 recruits in the 2017 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, have committed to a college. Seven of those players are headed to SEC schools. No other league has more than four.
Of the top 50 players in the class, 13 of them are headed to the SEC, and seven schools are represented: UK (six), Alabama (two), Auburn, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi State and Missouri.
The Pac-12 has nine top-50 commitments, the ACC has eight, and the Big 12 has six. No other league has more than two.
Combine those young stars with the league’s returning players, and the SEC could again increase its number of NCAA Tournament teams next season.
“The future is going to be great,” said five-star UK signee PJ Washington. “We’re getting a lot of top recruits, and the teams are getting better. The teams are playing harder. A lot of teams are making it deeper in the tournament, and it’s just going to continue to be a great league.”
Top 50 recruits from the 2017 class committed to SEC schools
- 2. Michael Porter Jr. (Missouri)
- 7. Collin Sexton (Alabama)
- 9. Hamidou Diallo (Kentucky)
- 13. PJ Washington (Kentucky)
- 14. Nick Richards (Kentucky)
- 20. Jarred Vanderbilt (Kentucky)
- 24. Quade Green (Kentucky)
- 27. Nick Weatherspoon (Mississippi State)
- 30. John Petty (Alabama)
- 33. Daniel Gafford (Arkansas)
- 34. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Kentucky)
- 44. Rayshaun Hammonds (Georgia)
- 45. Chuma Okeke (Auburn)