The SEC men’s basketball season is over, but it expired honorably.
The SEC women’s basketball season ends Sunday night, with even more glory, an NCAA championship already guaranteed for either Mississippi State or South Carolina.
The combined success marks the best ending to an SEC basketball history in years, arguably better than Kentucky’s national championship run in 2012. That’s no disrespect to the Wildcats — it’s just that they are expected to have success at fairly regular intervals (much like Alabama football) and that success is not always regarded as reflective of the conference as a whole.
This year it wasn’t just about Kentucky, although the Wildcats came close to making the Final Four as well, pushing North Carolina to the margin of one of the postseason’s two most exciting buzzer-beaters. Luke Maye’s game-winner was surpassed only by Morgan William and her overtime game-winner against UConn. This year, the success went deeper. There was great achievement by schools who hadn’t “been there before,” notably the Gamecock men and the MSU women. That should bring hope, more so than another Kentucky win (or, in the not-too-distant past, the Tennessee women) would have.
If South Carolina can do it, why not Alabama or Vanderbilt, Tennessee or Auburn, or teams that have been to the Final Four but are enduring a long exile, like Georgia or LSU? The necessary administrative moves — improving facilities, hiring accomplished coaches — were already under way but this should only accelerate them.
The hopes at two schools aren’t solely from reflected glory, either. The McDonald’s All-America game was earlier this week and both the MVP — 6-foot-9 Michael Porter — and the unquestioned most dynamic player — Alabama signee Collin Sexton — are headed to the SEC as well. Porter wound up at Missouri through a domino effect of events involving Lorenzo Romar’s firing at Washington and Cuonzo Martin’s subsequent hiring at Mizzou. The Tigers have a long climb back to respectability but Porter, a smooth 6-foot-9 forward, is a huge first step. Add that to some late-season improvement by the Tigers — and perhaps some more recruiting help – and at worst, Missouri should no longer wallow in the depths of a 200-plus RPI. That alone will help the entire league.
At Alabama, Sexton will provide plenty of highlights, although he will probably tone down the flashiest passes from All-Star week, at least while Avery Johnson is watching. He will bring much-needed scoring punch and the infusion of talent, both from his presence and the addition of John Petty and Herb Jones (who is being overlooked in the glare of this incoming class), should give Alabama the push it needs.
On the women’s side, the SEC will be good, as it has been good for years, a fact obscured by Connecticut’s long stretch of dominance. Mississippi State’s win didn’t just unite the SEC in support. It united an entire nation. The Bulldogs won in no small measure by standing up to UConn and playing without fear. Here’s a lone consolation thought for the Huskies, one that people in Tuscaloosa understand better than those in most places: when everyone aside from your own fans is thrilled to see you lose, that’s means you’ve been very good for a very long time.
Ultimately, the reaction to the end of basketball season in the SEC this time around. There has been a lot less “I’m glad that’s over” and a lot more “I’m ready for that to start again.” Football is still king — but for the first time in years, spring football wasn’t the Crown Prince.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.