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SEC basketball is finally finding the vindication and validation it craves

SEC basketball fever is here in earnest.

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

SEC basketball has always wanted to be loved, but it never knew how to love itself. America’s premier football conference has yearned for respect on the hardwood for years, occasionally finding the ultimate validation from Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators or John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, but often being mocked for a lack of depth and overall strength within conference.

This season might be different. You could feel it during Saturday’s annual Big 12/SEC Challenge, an event that entered its fifth year without an outright win from the SEC. That changed this weekend. Alabama quieted the Trae Young Show. Kentucky erased a 17-point deficit to stun West Virginia. Florida blew out Baylor. Arkansas outlasted Oklahoma State.

Conference-leading Auburn wasn’t even involved in the Challenge, but the SEC won anyway, edging the Big 12 with a 6-4 record. Yes, they did the chant, and, yes, the conference had some fun with it.

The Big 12 is rated as the toughest league in America by KenPom, but the SEC made its case Saturday it can compete with any conference, top to bottom, this season.

When Selection Sunday rolls around, it’s entirely possible the SEC is the conference that grabs the most bids. The latest Bracketology projection by SB Nation’s Chris Dobbertean has seven SEC teams in the field at the moment, and three more schools listed among the first four out.

  • Auburn is a No. 2 seed
  • Kentucky is a 3-seed
  • Tennessee is a No. 4 seed
  • Florida is a No. 5 seed
  • Alabama and Arkansas are both No. 7 seeds
  • Texas A&M is a No. 10 seed

South Carolina, Missouri, and Georgia are all listed in the first four out. It’s entirely possible the SEC gets nine or 10 teams in the field this year.

The ACC (which has nine bids in our latest projection) remains college basketball’s glamour conference. The Big 12 has the most depth. The Big East is impressive. This is a happy space, so we won’t even talk about Big Ten basketball.

The SEC is, at least, right there with any of them. Still, both of these things can be true:

SEC basketball is good ...

It really is! The conference’s +14.63 rating on KenPom is its best since 2007:

KenPom

... There still might not be any elite teams

Here’s a look at the SEC standings right now. If you had to guess, how many of these teams will make the second weekend of the tournament? Are any good enough to make the Final Four?

ESPN

Auburn has been an amazing story amid the FBI investigation, but it doesn’t have the feel of a trendy pick to make a deep tournament run yet. Kentucky is talented, but the pieces don’t fit perfectly this year. Florida had top-10 hype before losing four of five at one point earlier this season. Tennessee has some great wins (Purdue), some respectable losses (UNC, Villanova), and is just now starting to gain some attention as it crashes the top 10 of the KenPom rankings this week.

Any of those teams could go to the second weekend, but none of them have much national hype. Of course, South Carolina made the Final Four as a No. 7 seed last year, so maybe hype is overrated.

SEC fans should enjoy this. The conference is full of fun, up-tempo teams. It’s a deep league with plenty of parity.

Will we get another South Carolina-like run this year? Who knows. But after this conference slate, you know the teams headed to the NCAA tournament will have been properly pushed and tested.