A March Madness bust for SEC basketball ... but wait ... there's hope? | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

No conference outdoes the SEC for boastfulness, and its combination of hubris and triumphs means no conference gets mocked more when it stumbles.

So, the SEC is smothered in egg after five of its six NCAA Tournament qualifiers were eliminated in the first or second round.

LSU peaked in early December.

So did Alabama, and the Crimson Tide also had to deal with an injury to star guard Jahvon Quinerly in its first-round NCAA Tournament loss.

Auburn peaked in January.

Kentucky was never the same after February injuries to TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler, even though those players returned before March Madness.

Tennessee picked a bad day to go cold from 3-point range.

But those are excuses, and no one wants to hear them.

Call this what it is, a massive bust for a conference that puffed out its chest all season.

“We are the best league,” Kentucky coach John Calipari wrote on Twitter entering the SEC Tournament, “and our teams deserve that respect!”

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Less than two weeks after that tweet, Calipari’s Wildcats suffered the most embarrassing loss in program history, a first-round defeat to 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s.

The Wildcats' annual athletics revenue is about four times the reported university endowment for Saint Peter's.

Some league, huh?

At least Kentucky’s star showed up. Wildcats big man Oscar Tshiebwe tallied in 30 points and 16 rebounds, but his teammates offered insufficient support.

That’s more than Auburn can say. Its national player of the year candidate, Jabari Smith, performed a vanishing act in the second-round loss to Miami, and the Hurricanes played with more fire.

Frontcourt strength had been the backbone for Kentucky and Auburn, and we were reminded that guards usually rule the NCAA Tournament.

Three-point shooting and defense were Tennessee’s strengths, until they went into hiding in a second-round loss to 11th-seeded Michigan.

SEC coaches, fans, talking heads, and, yes, even this columnist, pounded the drum after Selection Sunday that the selection committee snubbed Texas A&M from the tournament.

I suggested that Michigan should have been swapped out in favor of the streaking Aggies.

Apparently, the selection committee saw something in Michigan that most of us missed. The Vols wilted in the bright lights, while the Wolverines relished the big stage.

Now, it’s (spring) football time in Tennessee and on the Plains, and it’s “Fire Cal!” season for Big Blue Nation.

A three-week, single-elimination tournament is an imperfect measurement of the collective strength of a basketball conference. Results throughout the season indicated that the SEC ranked among the nation’s best leagues.

But teams are remembered for what happens during the NCAA Tournament, the sport’s lone opportunity in the spotlight, instead of the other four months, when a sliver of the audience is watching.

The SEC's lone Sweet 16 qualifier, Arkansas, had its hands full in dispatching 13th-seeded Vermont and 12th-seeded New Mexico State.

Other conferences can share in the SEC’s misery. The ballyhooed Big Ten largely flamed out in the second round.

The Big 12 and ACC are the only conferences that produced three Sweet 16 teams. The Pac-12, Big Ten and Big East supplied two apiece, while the SEC joined the West Coast Conference, American Athletic Conference and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with one.

Those numbers point to the sport’s parity.

Any SEC fan worth their weight in ego knows this conference celebrates championships above all else. Criticisms about the SEC's so-so showing in bowl games last winter became overshadowed by the conference producing both participants in the national championship game, an assurance that chants of “S-E-C! S-E-C!” capped another football season.

So, the Razorbacks can apply salve to what has been an otherwise disastrous tournament for the SEC.

All Arkansas must do is beat No. 1 overall Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, then Duke or Texas Tech in the Elite Eight, then win two more games.

No sweat.

Don’t think the Razorbacks can do it?

Let me remind you that Arkansas just dropped 53 points on New Mexico State.

Good luck handling all that SEC might, Gonzaga.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.