It’s Time to Talk Well to the SEC as Mississippi State’s Race Adds Conference Strength

If the SEC were to compile a “talk to me kindly” list of people who eliminated their conference, the scroll of names would seem to have no end. In modern terms, it wouldn’t fit in a TikTok video.

South Carolina went from end to end as the No. 1 team in the country and are heavily favored to win their second consecutive title. Nobody questioned that. But while they recorded conference wins at a humming 26.1 average points per win, the chatter about the strength of the rest of the SEC was constant. It’s a bear year for the SEC. Competition is not that high. How do you measure a group of teams having to play against one that has separated itself so much from the rest? Can they really win in March?

The ball doesn’t lie and neither do the results. The SEC is a collective 7-1 in the first round, led by No. 11 Mississippi State, becoming the first Top Four team in tournament history to reach the second round. The Bulldogs were the first game of this NCAA Tournament, kicking off a postseason that could open and close with an SEC team winning.

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

“Do you know who it was? It was all SEC head coaches,” Purcell said after kicking out Illinois, an impressive rising Big Ten team. “We have a discussion and everyone says, ‘Sam, you set the tone, man. Good luck.’ Which, again, is a special conference because you have special people.”

The day after the Bulldogs’ breakthrough, Purcell released his “talk to me nice” list of athletes and presidents (current and former) who didn’t pick their team to win. It was a joke, but it sounds like a parting shot for all trainers on the topic.

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 are in the top 50 in shooting from the field and 3-point percentage, assists and blocks per game. After finishing fifth in the SEC standings in the regular season, they entered the tournament as the seven-team conference final.

The Bulldogs pulled off an even bigger upset by defeating No. 6 Creighton, the current midfield favorite, in the first round. They went 11-of-19 from 3-point range, tying their season with 3s made. And his chances of making it into weekend two are solid as the No. 3 Notre Dame is without point guard Olivia Miles and working a short bank at Greenville 1.

Ole Miss (24-8, 11-5) was the other SEC team to come close to South Carolina, losing 7 in overtime last month. The Rebels were seeded eighth in a clash that should have gone ahead anyway. Instead, Ole Miss crushed Gonzaga by 23 to face Stanford at Seattle 4.

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

The SEC took a backseat all season, with every other Power Six conference getting a spin behind the wheel. There was the wild top-down competitiveness of the ACC, who went 6-2 in the first round. One of his losses was to an SEC squad. “Pac-12 After Dark,” as it is affectionately called by East Coast fans, featured surprises throughout the conference title game. They went 5-2.

The Big 12 – well, maybe the SEC was always above them. The conference fielded a surprising six teams and went 3-3, including a loss to No. 5 Iowa State and a near miss to No. 7 Baylor. The Big East felt the love beyond UConn, but were 2–3 in the first round with all three bottom seeds trailing, including that L of the Bluejays.

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

Mississippi State’s JerKaila Jordan shoots as Creighton’s Carly Bachelor saves 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 where teams regularly earn 80 points and five teams rank in the top 15 in their category. The conference collectively averages 74 ppg, 16.1 apg, 41.4% from the floor, and 33.6% from 3-point range. Even in explosions, there was always something and someone to watch.

While we were all in awe of the beauty of full passes, beautiful ball movement and a rain of 3s, we forgot the old adage that defense wins championships. Go ahead, ask South Carolina and Dawn Staley about it.

The Gamecocks (33-0) are No. 1 in the defensive rankings (72.6), leading five SEC teams ranked in the top five in the category. LSU is sixth, Ole Miss is 15th, Mississippi State is 24th, and Georgia is 25th. Alabama is ranked 78th and Tennessee, rewarded with a No. 4 ranking for playing an incredibly tough schedule, is ranked 127th.

Mississippi State was able to set the tone for the SEC because of their defense, holding Illinois nearly 20 points below their season average. It was 4 points off the Fighting Illini’s lowest total for the season. Georgia did the same, holding Florida State 15 under and Ole Miss held Gonzaga 23 under theirs.

A single set of games cannot really determine the best conference. Not even a tournament, where an unfortunate combination of styles can end a season. Even so, the SEC has shown that it is not a bear year. May win in March. And we all should have had a good word with them so we wouldn’t risk hearing our names called out in their TikTok video next season.

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