It’s time to talk nice to the SEC as Mississippi State’s run adds to the conference’s strength

If the SEC compiled a “talk to me nice” list of the people who counted their conference out, the papyrus roll of names would never 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 straight title. No one questioned it. But while they rattled off conference wins to the tune of a 26.1 points per win average, talk of the strength of the rest of the SEC was constant. It’s a down year for the SEC. The competition is not as high. How do you measure a group of teams that have to play against a team that has separated itself so much from the rest? Can they really win in March?

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

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 started blowing up with messages after the first win.

“Do 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.’ Like again, it’s a special conference because you have special people.”

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

We are as competitive in March as you all. 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 goals and 3-point percentage, assists and blocks per game. After finishing fifth in the regular SEC standings, they slipped into the tournament as the conference’s final of seven teams.

The Bulldogs pulled off an even bigger upset by upsetting No. 6 Creighton, the reigning mid-major favorite, in the first round. They were 11-of-19 from 3-point range, tying a season high in 3-pointers made by the team. And their chances to reach 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 gone either way. Instead, Ole Miss crushed Gonzaga by 23 to face Stanford in Seattle on March 4.

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

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The SEC took a backseat all season with every other Power Six conference taking a turn at the wheel. It 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 team. The “Pac-12 after dark,” as it’s called by East Coast fans, featured upsets all the way through the conference title game. They went 4-2.

The Big 12 – well, maybe the SEC was always above them. The conference surprisingly fielded six teams and went 3-3, including losses to No. 5 Iowa State and nearly 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 the L of 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 against an SEC team.

Mississippi State's JerKaila Jordan shoots as Creighton's Carly Bachelor defends during the first round of the women's NCAA Tournament on March 17, 2023, in South Bend, Indiana.  (AP Photo/Michael Caterina)

Mississippi State’s JerKaila Jordan shoots as Creighton’s Carly Bachelor defends during the first round of the women’s NCAA Tournament March 17, 2023, in South Bend, Indiana. (AP Photo/Michael Caterina)

It is hard to ignore a conference where the teams regularly take 80 points and five teams rank in the top-15 in the category. The conference is averaging 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 all marveled at the beauty of full-court passing, neat 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.

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The Gamecocks (33-0) rank No. 1 in defensive rating (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 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, holding Illinois to nearly 20 points below its season average. That was 4 points off the Fighting Illini’s season-low total. Georgia did the same with Florida State 15 under and Ole Miss held Gonzaga 23 under theirs.

A single set of games cannot decide a best conference. Nor a tournament where an unfortunate matchup of styles can end a season. Still, the SEC has shown that it is not a down year. It can win in March. And we should all have had a nice chat with them so as not to risk hearing our names called out in their TikTok hype video next season.

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