Time to speak kindly to the SEC as Mississippi State race builds conference strength

If the SEC compiled a “speak well” list of people who counted their conference, the papyrus roll of names wouldn’t seem to stop. In modern terms, that wouldn’t fit in a TikTok video.

South Carolina has become the No. 1 team in the nation and is the overwhelming favorite to win its second consecutive title. Nobody questioned that. But as they racked up conference wins at a humming 26.1 average points per win, the chatter around the strength of the rest of the SEC was constant. It’s been a bad year for the SEC. The competition is not as high. How do you measure a group of teams having to play a team that has separated itself so much from the others? Can they all really win in March?

Ball doesn’t lie and neither do the results. The SEC is a collective 7-1 in the first round, led by No. 11 seed Mississippi State, becoming the first top-four team in tournament history to reach the second round. The Bulldogs played Game 1 of this NCAA Tournament, starting a playoff series that could open and close with a victory for an SEC team.

Mississippi State’s Sam Purcell, a freshman head coach who spent nine years building the Louisville program into a Final Four contender as an assistant to Jeff Walz, said his phone started exploding with messages after this first victory.

“Do you know who it was? It was every head coach in the SEC,” Purcell said after ousting Illinois, an impressive up and coming Big Ten team. “We have a thread, and they’re all like, ‘Sam, you set the tone, man. Good luck.’ Again, it’s a special conference because you have special people.

A day after the Bulldogs qualified, Purcell released his “speak well” list of athletes and presidents (current and former) who didn’t pick his team to win. It was a joke, but sounds like a knockout for all those coaches on the wire.

We are just as competitive in March as all of you. Maybe better.

Mississippi State (22-10, 9-7), which finished fifth in the SEC, was one of four teams with a final single-digit margin against South Carolina this season. They rank in the top 50 in field goals and 3-point percentage, assists and blocks per game. After finishing fifth in the SEC regular season standings, they slipped into the tournament as the seven-team Conference Finals.

The Bulldogs pulled off an even bigger stunner by upsetting No. 6 Creighton. MSU was 11 of 19 from 3-point range, tying its season high in 3 seconds. And their chances of reaching the second weekend are solid as the No. 3 Notre Dame is without point guard Olivia Miles and works with a small bench in the Greenville 1 area.

Ole Miss (24-8, 11-5) was the other SEC team to stay within striking distance of South Carolina, losing by 7 in overtime last month. The Rebels were seeded eighth in a game that should, by standings, have gone either way. Instead, Ole Miss crushed Gonzaga by 23 to meet Stanford at Seattle 4.

Georgia (22-11, 9-7) joined them as double-digit seeds, moving through No. 7 Florida State to meet Iowa at Seattle 4. Top of the table, No. 1 Carolina South, No. 3 LSU and No. 4 Tennessee all did the job resoundingly on Friday. The only of the seven teams that didn’t win was No. 10 seeded Alabama in a 4-point loss to Baylor. The Crimson Tide went up, 22-4, in the first quarter, but couldn’t finish it.

The SEC has taken a back seat all season with every other Power Six conference taking a turn at the wheel. There was the wild top-to-bottom competitiveness of the ACC, which went 6-2 in the first round. One of their losses was against an SEC team. “Pac-12 after dark,” as East Coast fans affectionately call it, featured upheaval throughout its conference title game. They went 5-2.

The Big 12 – well, maybe the SEC has always been above them. The conference fielded a surprising six teams and went 3-3, including a loss by No. 5 seed Iowa State and a near miss by No. 7 Baylor. The Big East felt the love beyond UConn, but were 2-3 in the first round with all three bottom seeds losing, including Creighton’s L.

The SEC was certainly not above the Big Ten, which had the most teams (four) ranked third or better and averaged the most points of any major conference. They went 5-2, and again one of the losses was to an SEC team.

Mississippi State’s JerKaila Jordan shoots as Creighton’s Carly Bachelor defends during the first round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament on March 17, 2023 in South Bend, Indiana. (AP Photo/Michael Caterina)

It’s hard to look away from a conference in which teams regularly beat 80 points and five teams place in the top 15 in the category. The conference collectively averages 74 ppg, 16.1 apg, 41.4 percent from the floor and 33.6 percent from 3-point range. Even in eruptions, there was always something and someone to watch out for.

While we were all amazed by the beauty of the all-court passes, pretty ball moves and rain 3s, we forgot the old adage that defense wins championships. Go ahead, ask South Carolina and Dawn Staley about it.

The Gamecocks (33-0) rank first in the defensive rankings (72.6), leading five SEC teams in the top five in the category. LSU is sixth, Ole Miss is 15th, Mississippi State is 24th, and Georgia is 25th. Alabama is 78th and Tennessee, rewarded with a No. 4 seed for playing an incredibly tough schedule, is 127th.

Mississippi State was able to set the tone for the SEC with its defense, keeping Illinois nearly 20 points below its season average. It was 4 points off Fighting Illini’s season-low total. Georgia did the same, keeping Florida State 15 below and Ole Miss kept Gonzaga 23 below his average.

A single set of games can’t really determine a better conference. Not even a tournament, where an unlucky clash of styles can end a season. Even so, the SEC showed it didn’t have a down year. He can win in March. And we all should have spoken nicely to them lest we risk hearing our names called out in their hype TikTok video next season.

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