The NCAA tournament tends to obscure everything that came before it in a given college basketball season. Which teams won those Thanksgiving-week nonconference tournaments? Which players were making compelling cases for national awards in December and January? The image of Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Isaiah Hicks and other North Carolina Tar Heels cutting down the nets in Glendale moments after a six-point win over Gonzaga in the title game won’t fade away soon, but in the meantime, it’s worth looking back at what else happened during the 2016-17 campaign. This is the seventh installment of a conference-by-conference review series. We’ve already reviewed the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Pac-12, Big Ten and AAC. Here’s the SEC.
Most important thing we learned: The SEC reestablished itself beyond Kentucky
Heading into the 2016–17 season, the previous couple years in the SEC had largely been defined by Kentucky and how far John Calipari’s talented group could go. The Wildcats rolled through the conference during their 38–1 season in 2014–15, with only one other SEC school escaping the first round of the NCAA tournament. A year later, the conference sent just two teams besides the Wildcats to the Big Dance, one of which was part of the First Four.
This season, the SEC got back its mojo in a big way. Kentucky did win its third consecutive regular season and SEC tournament titles, but it was joined at the top of the conference by a rejuvenated Florida program and a tough, defensive-minded South Carolina team. The Gators and Gamecocks made huge splashes in March, with the two schools unexpectedly meeting in the Elite Eight of the East Region, where South Carolina was victorious. Along with Kentucky, the SEC had three teams in the final eight—no other conference had more than one.
Best game: Florida 84, Wisconsin 83 (OT) in the Sweet 16
This wasn’t a conference game, but one of the highlights of the entire college basketball season came courtesy of the Gators and Badgers. Wisconsin, coming off its big upset win over top-seeded and reigning champion Villanova, trailed by 12 points with less than five minutes left in regulation. Then, an unlikely source took over—Badgers senior Zak Showalter scored seven of their next 16 points, including an off-balance, three-point runner in the final seconds that sent the game to overtime. It was the kind of miraculous shot the NCAA tournament had desperately needed—and then Florida topped it.
After two Nigel Hayes free throws put Wisconsin up 83–81 with four seconds to go in OT, Gators junior Chris Chiozza took the inbounds pass and went full steam ahead, coming to a half-jump stop right before the three-point line and letting it fly. He hit nothing but net, putting the cherry on top of an instant classic at Madison Square Garden.
Best player: South Carolina senior guard Sindarius Thornwell
Sindarius Thornwell is an excellent example of a player who had a solid-but-not-spectacular college career before breaking out as a senior. The 6’5” guard had an immensely successful final season, averaging 21.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.1 steals while posting career-highs in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage. Defensively, he helped anchor the nation’s third-best defense in terms of adjusted efficiency (per kenpom.com), and led the conference in steal percentage during SEC play.
Thornwell was at the center of the Gamecocks’ stunning Final Four run, averaging 25.8 points and 7.5 rebounds during their four wins. He was invaluable to South Carolina’s success; after an undefeated start to the season, the Gamecocks went 2–3 against Division I opponents during his mid-season suspension, and their Final Four loss to Gonzaga was easily his worst game of the tournament (15 points on 4-of-12 shooting). Thornwell graduates having left a lasting legacy with the program, and the school recently announced that it is naming a scholarship in his honor.
Best coach: South Carolina’s Frank Martin
To put the Gamecocks’ Final Four run in perspective: prior to their 2017 first-round NCAA tournament game against 10th-seeded Marquette, the last South Carolina win in the Big Dance came in 1973. After the drought-ending victory, head coach Frank Martin said, “We're not there yet. But it's fun right now.”
So perhaps even Martin didn’t envision what would come next. The Gamecocks had a second-round date with No. 2 seed Duke, and the Blue Devils were thought to finally be rounding into their long-awaited fearsome form after capturing the ACC tournament crown. South Carolina, meanwhile, went 3–5 over its previous eight games. But Martin had gotten his players to fully buy into his defensive philosophy, and that ultimately played a massive role in the Final Four trip. Even when the Gamecocks exploded for a 65-point second half in the 88–81 win over Duke after scoring just 23 in the first 20 minutes, it could be traced back to the defense, which was relentless and bullied the Blue Devils into 18 turnovers. After the game, Mike Krzyzewski called South Carolina “the most physical team we've faced all year."
Best newcomer (freshman/transfer): Kentucky freshman guard Malik Monk
The Wildcats had two standout freshman guards this season in Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox, and impressive as Fox was, Monk takes the honors here. Everyone remembers his 47-point outburst in a thrilling 103–100 December win over North Carolina, but do you remember when, two games later, he scored 34 points on 11-of-16 shooting in a win over Ole Miss? How about his 37-point effort in an overtime win against Georgia when he hit 7 of 11 three-pointers? Like his ability to heat up at a moment’s notice, Monk’s three-point shooting was one of his strengths all year, hitting 39.7% overall and 42.5% in conference play. His 19.8 points per game average was second in the SEC to only Thornwell, and he added 2.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
Biggest surprise: South Carolina
The Gamecocks have already been discussed in depth, but they were the conference’s clear biggest surprise. Even without the Final Four run, they had a better year than many expected. Picked to finish eighth in the SEC in the preseason, South Carolina didn’t receive a single vote in the year’s first AP poll but climbed into the rankings by the end of November after a 6–0 start and wins over Michigan and Syracuse. When they started conference play 5–0, the Gamecocks looked like serious contenders before a 16-point loss at Kentucky somewhat tempered expectations. But even with a rough end to the regular season, they had done enough to finish tied for third in the SEC. A lackluster loss to Alabama in the SEC tourney quarterfinal made what came next even more unexpected.
Biggest disappointment: Texas A&M
After having their most successful season since 2006–07 with a 28–9 record and a Sweet 16 trip in 2016–17, the Aggies took a step backward this year. While the team figured to regress a bit having lost Danuel House Jr. and Jalen Jones, there was still plenty of reason to be optimistic about its chances. SI.com’s preseason projection system had Texas A&M ranked No. 37 with a third-place finish in the SEC and a 10-seed in the NCAA tournament. Instead, the Aggies finished 16–15 with an 8–10 mark in conference play. Defense had been their calling card in 2016–17, but without House and defensive standouts Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins, they weren’t the same on that end of the floor, with both their defensive turnover percentage and rebounding percentage taking a significant hit.
Despite the down year, Billy Kennedy has a solid core returning next season that centers around Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder and DJ Hogg. The Aggies bring in a four-man recruiting class that includes four-stars Savion Flagg and T.J. Starks, as well as Marquette grad transfer Duane Wilson. Additionally, former top-60 recruit J.J. Caldwell will be on board after being ruled ineligible for 2016–17. The future looks bright in College Station.
One burning off-season question: How about that Alabama recruiting class?
No, I’m not talking about Nick Saban’s. The Tide have an impressive haul coming in on the hardwood as well—the sixth-ranked class in the country, according to Scout. The crown jewel of the class is five-star Collin Sexton, 2017’s No. 6 recruit and the top-rated point guard. Top-60 recruits John Petty and Alex Reese, and three-stars Herb Jones and Galin Smith, join him. Alabama has been flirting with a return to the national stage in recent years, with three consecutive NIT trips. Will this recruiting class—its first to rank in the top 25 since 2011—join with talented rising sophomores Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram to get it over the hump and back to the Big Dance?
The Crimson Tide freshmen won’t be the only talented new faces in the SEC, either. Kentucky once again brings in a monster recruiting class, including the likes of Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, Quade Green and Hamidou Diallo, the latter of whom has been enrolled in Lexington since January and considered the NBA draft before announcing his return. In addition, Missouri also boasts a top-10 recruiting class, led by the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Michael Porter.