The Southeastern Conference is March Madness’ real sleeper pick

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It’s now March, which means it is time to be seduced by bubble watches and seed projections. It is the month of Selection Sunday, upset-minded “little guys” and guaranteed mayhem.

Ah, yes. The NCAA Tournament is right around the corner.

The ACC features tournament favorites like Virginia and Duke, while the Big 12 offers plenty of intrigue with heavyweights such as Kansas and Baylor. Likewise, Pac-12 powerhouses Arizona and Utah have been mainstays in the top 25 this season and should be able to do some serious damage in the tourney. The Big Ten will supply the brackets with plenty of known commodities like Wisconsin and Michigan State, while the Big East weighs in with the likes of Villanova and Georgetown.

But what about the SEC?

Kentucky has stolen the show, coasting through the regular season to a flawless 31-0 record. Yet, much like ACC football this past season with Florida State going undefeated in regular season play, it has been relatively easy to forget about the other teams in the conference.

After a trip to last year’s Final Four, Florida defined mediocrity this season (15-16, 8-10 SEC). The Gators were far and away the conference’s biggest disappointment, as Billy Donovan’s squad struggled mightily and won just three of 12 games between January 17 and February 24. But after last year’s mass exodus of senior leaders, the Gators were due for a letdown season.

The SEC East is also the home of the Missouri Tigers, who have been surprisingly average since their move from the Big 12. A 9-22 record has put the Tigers at the bottom of the SEC standings, while Tennessee and South Carolina have posted .500 records and never really looked like taking the East by storm.

Vanderbilt will have to rely on winning the SEC Tournament in order to make it to the Big Dance, but the Commodores did defeat Kentucky in the 2012 conference tournament championship — the same year the Wildcats won the NCAA Tournament with a star-studded lineup featuring Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones. The Commodores just downed Ole Miss in Oxford on March 7 and are on a five-game winning streak. Vandy should be able to maintain this momentum in the conference tourney, especially if center Damian Jones (14.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG) dominates in the paint.

Forgetting a team from the East? How about the Georgia Bulldogs? The epitome of a “football school,” Georgia has put together a fine season on the hardwood. The Dawgs are 20-10 and have won four of their last five. They lost to John Calipari’s Wildcats on March 3 — but only by eight points. Mark Fox has the Bulldogs humming just in time for the SEC Tournament.

Georgia’s rise has been impressive, but the beast of the East — and the nation — has been Kentucky all season long. The West, however, has no clear frontrunner.

Instead, parity has defined the competitive play at the top of the division. Arkansas has turned heads with a 24-7 record, and their toasty 17-2 home record is second to none in the SEC West. Though it is difficult to determine just how good the Hogs are, one thing is clear — they take care of business in games in which they are expected to win. There are no glaring losses on their résumé, and they have gone on two seven-game tears this season in which they looked like the real deal.

One of Arkansas’ two home losses came at the hands of LSU, another strong yet enigmatic team. LSU is 22-9 and still needs to prove it is NCAA Tournament material, but the Tigers will be a quality sleeper pick if they indeed go dancing. The Tigers’ frontcourt, led by Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey (who both average over 16 points and 9 rebounds per game) can be downright terrifying at times. LSU also showed it can win without Mickey, who has been one of the team’s most valuable players this season. In that March 7 clash with the Razorbacks, Mickey did not play against due to injury, but Martin picked up the slack with 27 points and eight boards. Despite the result of the game, Arkansas looks like a lock while LSU appears to be a quintessential bubble team, purely based on each team’s entire body of work this season.

Meanwhile, Auburn will need a “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” type of miracle in order to win the SEC Tournament, while Mississippi State’s chances of making a dent look equally slim. Alabama’s campaign got off to a promising start, but 2015 was not as friendly to the Crimson Tide. Senior guard Levi Randolph has looked bright for ’Bama, but there are just not enough quality W’s on this team’s transcript.

That leaves us with Texas A&M and Ole Miss, two 20-win teams who have been riding the same wave of uncertainty as March Madness approaches. The Aggies forced double-overtime against Kentucky back on January 10 and appeared to be legitimate contenders in the SEC after winning ten of their next 12 in conference play. However, an inability to seal the deal during the business end of the season could very well end up costing Billy Kennedy’s team, as A&M has dropped three of its last four. Ole Miss has also struggled down the stretch, but they could slide into the tournament as a middle-tier seed. The Rebels have not been spectacular, and there are no Marshall Henderson-esque characters to attract national attention. Ole Miss has a handful of ugly — but not hideous — losses (TCU and Western Kentucky, both at home). The Rebels, however, do have important non-conference wins against Cincinnati and Oregon, which could prove to be vital for Andy Kennedy’s team during the selection process.

The SEC should have between four and six teams in the NCAA Tournament. There is quite a bit still hanging in the balance for some of these teams, but the SEC Tournament will answer some burning questions and clear up the conundrum of who in fact deserves the opportunity to lace up their dancing shoes.

The SEC has been informally labeled a “football conference,” but do not be surprised if some of these teams start busting brackets in the NCAA Tournament. Despite the steep drop-off after Kentucky, there is some major flare and excitement to these fresh faces of SEC basketball.

Your bracket will probably be wildly inaccurate, just like it is every year. So, in addition to focusing on arbitrarily chosen sleeper teams, consider the SEC as a whole to be a sleeper conference. There may be a very realistic scenario in which every SEC team in the NCAA Tournament could advance to the round of 32.

Sure, Kentucky is far and away the best of the bunch and ought to be favored to hoist the hardware on April 6, but the next tier of SEC teams vying for tournament bids can flat-out ball.

Do not forget about the villains of March. You know, teams like Arkansas and Georgia. You will be temped to hastily pick recognizable “basketball schools” in your bracket and count out SEC squads left and right, but beware the madness that may ensue.

Known fact: things get awfully weird in March.

Josh Cohen is a freshman majoring in broadcast and digital journalism. His column, “The SCoreboard,” runs Mondays.