SEC Tournament Upsets Have Championship Favorites On Brink Of Elimination


Image credit: (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

In 2013, with the SEC newly expanded to 14 teams through the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M, the SEC Tournament expanded from 10 to 12 teams.

That necessitated a format change to the tournament the conference has used ever since. The top four seeds receive a first-round bye, while teams Nos. 5-12 play a single-elimination round on Tuesday. The winners join the top four seeds in a double-elimination format until four semifinalists are left. Saturday’s semifinals are single elimination, setting up a championship game Sunday.

That format has proven to heavily favor the top four seeds. All 10 of the tournaments that have used the 12-team, modified double-elimination format have been won by a team that got a first-round bye. It used to even been rare for a team that played on Tuesday to advance to the championship game, though that’s now happened in four of the last five tournaments.

This year, however, may be precedent breaking. On Wednesday, all four of the top seeds lost their opening game at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The day started with LSU blitzing No. 3 Kentucky, 11-0, in eight innings. South Carolina edged No. 2 Arkansas, 6-5. Vanderbilt routed archrival No. 1 Tennessee, 13-4. Mississippi State pushed past No. 4 Texas A&M, 5-3. It was the first time since 2010 that the top four seeds all lost their first game in the SEC Tournament.

Ironically, this is the final year of this format at the SEC Tournament. Starting in 2025, following the addition of Oklahoma and Texas, the tournament will expand to include all 16 teams. It will be a modified single-elimination format. Teams seeded 9-16 will play each other in the first round. Teams seeded 5-8 receive one bye and the top four teams will receive double byes. That format will likely again heavily favor the top four seeds.

But, for now, the focus is all on this unusually upset-minded 2024 tournament. After Wednesday’s wild results, the top four seeds now all face elimination on Thursday and two of them will see their SEC Tournament stay end with 0-2 weeks. That dramatically increases the chances that a team seeded outside the top four will win the SEC Tournament for the first time since 2012, when No. 7 Mississippi State beat No. 5 Vanderbilt in the championship game.

Not only did the top four seeds all lose on Wednesday, six of the first eight games in the SEC Tournament have been upsets according to the seeding.

There’s probably no one sweeping generalization that explains that kind of trend. There is a disparity in the meaning of the tournament among the teams. Five teams came into the SEC Tournament feeling some level of urgency to shore up their NCAA Tournament resumes after finishing the regular season at 13-17 in SEC play, historically a conference record that leaves a team open to missing the NCAA Tournament. Five other teams, including all of the top four seeds, came to Hoover knowing that they were already likely locked into hosting regionals. Those five teams all lost their first games.

“I don’t know what it says,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “I wouldn’t — each team does their thing. But I just look at it more like the 13 and 17 teams have probably something to prove.”

But the results also show a level of parity within the league. That was on display throughout the regular season, as any team proved to be a threat to beat any other team in the conference. Only Tennessee got through the conference season without taking more than one series loss and even the Volunteers played rubber games in six of the 10 series.

So, it shouldn’t really be much of a surprise that Hoover produced some big upsets this season.

“It shows you the parity,” Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis said. “Those four teams, they went through our league and rolled. But it shows you how close the others really are, and I think that means a lot for our league.”

Now, the urgency transfers to the conference’s top teams. While there are many examples over the years of teams playing poorly in the SEC Tournament only to quickly find their stride in the NCAA Tournament – 2021 Mississippi State went 0-2 in Hoover and went on to win the national championship, for instance – no team wants to go 0-2 and then wait a full week before the start of regionals.

There’s also the matter of NCAA Tournament seeding. All four of Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas A&M rank in the top five of RPI and comfortably project to be top-eight seeds in the NCAA Tournament, which would ensure they have homefield advantage until the College World Series. But how will the selection committee order them? Their play this week in Hoover was expected to help sort that out. It still might, just not in the same way it was expected to just a few days ago.

Thursday’s elimination games pit Arkansas against Kentucky and Tennessee against Texas A&M. The Volunteers and Aggies did not play each other during the regular season, while the Razorbacks and Wildcats did. Kentucky won that series in Lexington.

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said revenge was not going to be on his mind Thursday.

“I don’t really care who we play, honestly,” he said. “I just care about the shot. I just want to play good and advance a little bit and feel good when we leave.”

Download our app

Read the newest magazine issue right on your phone