Is it better to make a deep run in the SEC Tournament and ride in hot to the NCAA Tournament, or is it better for a team to get eliminated early and be rested for the upcoming sprint in the Big Dance?
These are questions that get asked every year by different SEC fan bases, and it’s particularly relevant to Vol fans this year. Tennessee stands their best chance at making a deep NCAA Tournament run in quite some time, and fans are hoping everything can line up perfectly for this year’s team.
So what’s the ideal scenario? Is it better for the Vols to make it to the SEC Tournament Finals before the NCAA Tournament begins, or are they better served getting bounced earlier and using that time to rest and prepare?
Let’s see what history has to say.
Dating back to the 2000 SEC Tournament, seven different teams have won the tournament. Kentucky leads the way, but they haven’t won as many since the turn of the century as you might think. The Wildcats have won the last four SEC Tournament titles, but overall they’ve won nine of the 19 SEC Tournaments since 2000. Florida has won the tournament championship four times, Mississippi State has won it twice, and Arkansas, Ole Miss, Georgia, and Vanderbilt have all won it once.
Over the last 19 seasons, two teams that have won the SEC Tournament title have gone on to win the National Championship. Both times, it was Florida that did so, winning both tournament titles in back-to-back years in 2006 and 2007.
Five of the 19 teams (26.3 percent) that have won the SEC Tournament since 2000 made it to at least the Final Four, and eight of them (42.1 percent) made it to at least the Elite Eight. That means nearly half of the teams that have won the conference tournament over the last 19 seasons have gone on to be at least one of the eight final teams in the NCAA Tournament. Less than half (47.4 percent) of those 19 teams have been eliminated before the Sweet Sixteen.
How does that compare to the teams that fell short of the SEC Tournament title?
Only once has a runner-up in the SEC Tournament gone on to win the NCAA Tournament championship. Of the 17 runner-ups in the SEC Tournament that have gone on to earn berths in the Big Dance since 2000, the only team to go on to win the National Championship was the 2012 Kentucky squad that lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament Finals. In 2014, Kentucky again finished runner-up in the SEC Tournament — this time to Florida — and that Wildcats squad made it to the finals of the NCAA Tournament, though they lost to UConn.
Those two instances are the only times an SEC Tournament runner-up has made it even as far as the Final Four, though.
Only five SEC Tournament runner-ups (29.4 percent) that have earned berths in the NCAA Tournament have even made it as far as the Elite Eight. In fact, 10 of the 17 SEC Tournament runner-ups to earn NCAA Tournament berths have been eliminated before reaching the Sweet Sixteen. That’s over half (58.8 percent) of those teams that have failed to make it out of the opening weekend.
And it only gets worse when you look at the SEC Tournament semifinalists.
None of the 22 teams that were eliminated in the SEC Tournament semifinals that went on to make it to the NCAA Tournament since 2000 ended up winning the national title. Only one team (2006 LSU) in this grouping even made it to the Final Four, and only three teams — including that 2006 LSU squad — have made it to at least the Elite Eight after being eliminated in the SEC Tournament semifinals.
Nearly two-thirds (63.6 percent) of the 22 SEC teams that were eliminated in the conference tournament semifinals that made it to the Big Dance were bounced out of the NCAA Tournament before the Sweet Sixteen.
But how about Tennessee? When the Vols have gone on their deeper NCAA Tournament runs over the last 20 years, how have they fared in the SEC Tournament prior to that?
Interestingly, every time the Vols have made it to the SEC Tournament Finals since the tournament was reintroduced in 1979, they’ve failed to make it to the Sweet Sixteen. In 1979, the last time Tennessee has won the tournament, they won one game and made it to the second round before being eliminated by one-seed Notre Dame. In 1991, the Vols made it to the SEC Tournament Finals but didn’t earn an NCAA Tournament berth. The 2009 Vols lost by three points to Mississippi State in the finals of the conference tournament, then they lost in the first round as a nine-seed to eighth-seeded Oklahoma State. Last year, the Vols lost to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Finals then got bounced in the second round by Cinderella team Loyola-Chicago.
Not only do the Vols buck that trend when compared to other SEC teams, but they also go against a couple other trends over the last two decades.
When looking at Tennessee’s five longest NCAA Tournament runs since 2000, there’s been an interesting pattern over the last few years. The Vols made it to the Sweet Sixteen in 2000, 2007, 2008, and 2014 and also made it to the Elite Eight in 2010. In two of those years, the Vols were one-and-done in the SEC Tournament, and they won only one game in two others.
Tennessee failed to win a game in the SEC Tournament in 2000 and 2007, yet they went on to make it to the Sweet Sixteen both years. In 2008, UT won one game in the conference tournament and made it to the semifinals before being eliminated, and the same thing happened in the 2014 tournament. Yet both of those years also resulted in a trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
The 2010 Vols won two games in the SEC Tournament and made it to the semifinals, then they ended up going further in the NCAA Tournament than any Tennessee team has before or since, making it to the Elite Eight.
Only seven times over the last 19 SEC Tournaments has a team that got eliminated in the semifinals of the tournament gone on to make it to at least the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. Three of those times, the team was Tennessee.
History clearly shows that the deeper teams go in the SEC Tournament, the better their odds are of doing the same thing in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee, however, tends to go against that trend over the last two decades for whatever reason. They’ve more often been the exception to the rule rather than following the pattern.
So is it better for the Vols to go deeper into the SEC Tournament this year in preparation for an NCAA Tournament run? Or would it be better to get some rest over the weekend?
We’ll just have to wait and find out.