March Madness: It's time to talk nice to the SEC as Mississippi State's run boosts conference's strength

If the SEC compiled a "talk to me nice" list of the people who counted their conference out, the papyrus scroll of names wouldn't seem to end. In modern terms, it wouldn't fit into a TikTok video.

South Carolina went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the country and is the heavy favorite to win its second consecutive title. No one questioned that. But while they rattled off conference wins to a hum of 26.1 average points per victory, the chatter around the strength of the rest of the SEC was constant. It's a down year for the SEC. The competition isn't as high. How do you measure a group of teams having to play one that's separated itself so much from the rest? Can they all really win in March?

Ball don't lie and neither do the results. The SEC is a collective 7-1 through the first round, led by No. 11 seed Mississippi State becoming the first First Four team in tournament history to reach the second round. The Bulldogs were the first game of this NCAA tournament, starting a postseason that could open and close with an SEC team's victory.

Mississippi State’s Sam Purcell, a first-year head coach who spent nine years building the Louisville program into a Final Four contender as Jeff Walz’s assistant, said his phone starting blowing up with messages after that first win.

“You know who it was? It was every SEC head coach,” Purcell said after ousting Illinois, an impressive Big Ten team on the rise. “We have a thread, and they’re all like, ‘Sam, you set the tone, man. Good luck.’ Which again, it’s a special conference because you’ve got special people.”

A day after the Bulldogs advanced, Purcell released his "talk to me nice" list of athletes and presidents (current and former) who didn't choose his team to win. It was in jest, but rings as a parting shot for all those coaches on the thread.

We’re 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 only four teams with a single-digit final margin against South Carolina this season. They rank top-50 in field-goal and 3-point percentage, assists and blocks per game. After finishing fifth in the regular season SEC standings, they slid into the tournament as the conference’s final of seven teams.

The Bulldogs pulled off an even bigger stunner by upsetting No. 6 Creighton, the reigning mid-major favorite, in the first round. They were 11-of-19 from 3-point range, tying their season high in 3s made. And their chances of reaching the second weekend are solid since No. 3 Notre Dame is without point guard Olivia Miles and working with a short bench in Greenville 1.

Ole Miss (24-8, 11-5) was the other SEC team to stay within striking distance of South Carolina, losing by 7 in overtime last month. The Rebels were seeded eighth in a matchup that should have, per seedings, gone either way. Instead, Ole Miss crushed Gonzaga by 23 to meet Stanford in Seattle 4.

Georgia (22-11, 9-7) joined them as double-digit seed winners, getting by No. 7 Florida State to meet Iowa in Seattle 4. At the top of the table, No. 1 South Carolina, No. 3 LSU and No. 4 Tennessee all got the job done resoundingly on Friday. The only one of seven teams that didn’t was No. 10 seed Alabama in a 4-point loss to Baylor. The Crimson Tide went up, 22-4, in the first quarter, but couldn’t finish it out.

The SEC took a backseat all season with every other Power Six conference taking a turn at the wheel. There was the wild top-to-bottom competitiveness of the ACC, which went 6-2 in the first round. One of their losses was to an SEC squad. “Pac-12 after dark,” as it is endearingly called by East Coast fans, featured upsets all the way up through its conference title game. They went 4-2.

The Big 12 — well, maybe the SEC was always above them. The conference placed a surprising six teams and went 3-3, including a loss by No. 5 seed Iowa State and almost by No. 7 Baylor. The Big East felt the love beyond UConn, but was 2-3 through the first round with all three lower seeds losing, including that L by the Bluejays.

The SEC certainly wasn’t above the Big Ten, which had the most teams (four) seeded third or better and averaged the most points of any major conference. They went 5-2, and again one of the losses was to an SEC squad.

It's tough to look away from a conference in which teams regularly crack 80 points and five teams rank top-15 in the category. The conference collectively averages 74 ppg, 16.1 apg, 41.4% from the floor and 33.6% from 3-point range. Even in blowouts, there was always something and someone to watch.

While we were all marveling at the beauty of full-court passes, pretty ball movement and a shower 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) rank No. 1 in defensive rating (72.6), leading five SEC teams ranked top five in the category. LSU is sixth, Ole Miss is 15th, Mississippi State is 24th and Georgia is 25th. Alabama is 78th and Tennessee, rewarded with a No. 4 seed for playing an incredibly tough schedule, is 127th.

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

A single set of games can’t truly determine a best conference. Nor even can a tournament, where an unlucky matchup of styles can end a season. Even so, the SEC has shown it isn’t a down year. It can win in March. And we all should have been talking to them nice as to not risk hearing our names called in their TikTok hype video next season.

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