New Research Shows How Stupid Caring about SEC Tournament Results Really Is

Dave Van Horn, Arkansas baseball, SEC Tournament
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

Not only was Arkansas the first team to arrive in Hoover, but another early exit from the SEC Tournament meant it was also one of the first to leave.

As is typically the case this time of year, some fans have gone into full-blown panic mode after watching the No. 5 Razorbacks lose to South Carolina and No. 2 Kentucky on back-to-back days at the event.

Those who closely follow Arkansas baseball, though, know it’s important not to put too much stock into the SEC Tournament. More times than not, it proves to be meaningless.

That word — “meaningless” — is hard for some fans to accept, especially those whose fandom primarily centers around football. That’s a sport in which every game matters and going undefeated is a real possibility.

Baseball is not like that. It is famously a game of failure — succeeding three times out of 10 is considered good for batters — and losses happen. They can even happen in bunches to good teams.

An 0-2 showing in Hoover is not the end of the world.

The last time it happened to Arkansas was 2022. That season ended in Omaha, with the Razorbacks coming up a Dylan DeLucia away from playing for a national title.

Surely that was a fluke, though, right? Well, the last time Arkansas went 0-2 at the SEC Tournament before that was a decade earlier, in 2012. That season also ended in Omaha, with the Razorbacks coming up a Perry Costello away from making the College World Series finals.

Weird. It’s almost like the games in Hoover had no bearing on what unfolded in the NCAA Tournament — you know, the games that actually matter.

Stats Don’t Lie with SEC Tournament

About the only time the SEC Tournament means anything is when a team actually has something for which to play. even then, it’s debatable whether or not it impacts things very much.

While the Razorbacks were locked into a top-8 national seed regardless of what happened in Hoover, there were a few teams that allegedly stood to improve their NCAA Tournament standing.

Georgia was trying to lock up a top-8 seed, while Florida was still trying to solidify its at-large bid. Both teams lost in the single-elimination round Tuesday. The result? As of Friday, the Bulldogs are still projected as the No. 8 overall seed and the Gators are solidly in the field despite a 28-27 overall record. Neither D1Baseball nor Baseball America have them in their “Last Four In” section.

The last three years have been perfect examples of why the SEC Tournament doesn’t matter, as well.

Vanderbilt won the event last season, but lost its home regional. Before that, Arkansas and Tennessee won it all in Hoover in 2021 and 2022, respectively, on their way to earning the No. 1 overall seed, only to lose in the super regionals.

That hasn’t always been the case. Since the NCAA Tournament went to its current format in 1999, only three SEC Tournament champions — 2000 LSU, 2009 LSU and 2019 Vanderbilt — have gone on to win it all, but 10 of 21 from 1999-2019 at least made it to Omaha.

On the other end of the spectrum, the last three national champions — Mississippi State in 2021, Ole Miss in 2022 and LSU in 2023 — went a combined 1-5 in the SEC Tournament before making their postseason runs. Three years ago, the Bulldogs barely showed up in Hoover, getting run-ruled in their two losses.

For the most part, that has been the case for Arkansas baseball over the years.

Prior to the Razorbacks’ seven College World Series appearances under Dave Van Horn, they went a combined 9-13 (.429) at the SEC Tournament. In the years they failed to make it to Omaha, they own a combined 19-17 (.528) record in Hoover.

Furthermore, Arkansas has posted a winning record at the SEC Tournament seven times during Van Horn’s tenure. Five of those seasons, it failed to make it out of its regional. The 2018 team, which went 2-1 in Hoover, is the only one of those teams to make it to Omaha.

Typically, deep runs have actually proved costly.

Arguably the best team in school history was the 2021 squad, which won the program’s lone SEC Tournament title. Despite being the No. 1 overall seed, that team famously lost to North Carolina State at Baum-Walker Stadium in the super regionals. That year was also the perfect example of the worst-case scenario, as Brady Slavens suffered an injury that lingered and impacted his play in the regional and super regional.

The Razorbacks have finished runner-up at the event twice under Van Horn and both times — in 2007 and 2017 — they failed to advance out of a home regional. (The story was much the same under legendary coach Norm DeBriyn, which guided Arkansas to runner-up finishes at the SEC Tournament in 1998 and 1999, only to not make it out of the regionals.)

Potential Benefits of SEC Tournament

Dave Van Horn has made his thoughts about the SEC Tournament pretty clear. While not intentionally throwing games, he’s said numerous times that he isn’t going to burn his pitching or do anything else high might otherwise do in must-win games.

“Meaningless,” as we described the event earlier, might be a touch harsh because there are some benefits.

Because the Razorbacks almost always end the regular season on the road, they have traditionally just gone straight from their final series to Hoover. As one of the first teams there, the baseball facilities aren’t even open yet. In an interview on ESPN Arkansas on Tuesday, UA radio play-by-play man Phil Elson said Hagen Smith and Jake Faherty even had to resort to playing catch in the parking lot on Sunday.

That leads to almost forced team-bonding time, which can help get the team ready for what they hope to be a deep postseason run, even if it doesn’t lead to wins in the SEC Tournament.

It also gives Van Horn an opportunity to do certain things he might otherwise not. This year, that was hitting Kendall Diggs in the leadoff spot. Perhaps he continues to do that in the regional, but it may have just been a move for the SEC Tournament to get the struggling slugger as many at bats as possible in an effort to get him going.

He was also able to get Brady Tygart back on the mound, even in a relief appearance, after he was left off the 27-man roster for the Texas A&M series. Mason Molina also pitched out of the bullpen for the second time, as the Razorbacks try to sort out his role for the upcoming postseason after he faltered down the stretch.

Two years ago, it was Hagen Smith who really struggled in his final two outings of the regular season, allowing 10 earned runs in just four total innings. He pitched a scoreless inning of relief in a losing effort at the SEC Tournament and proceeded to be a vital piece of that team’s run to the College World Series semifinals, mostly out of the bullpen.

Causes of Concern for Arkansas Baseball?

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the Arkansas baseball team as it awaits its draw in the NCAA Tournament, the bracket for which will be revealed on ESPN2 at 11 a.m. CT Monday.

The Razorbacks committed five errors in their two SEC Tournament games, which was uncharacteristic for a team that entered the event with the fourth-best fielding percentage in the country. Two of those were failed pickoff attempts by pitchers that can almost be written off as flukes, but there were other legitimate concerns.

Peyton Stovall booted a grounder for his second error in three games and has made a couple of other error-worthy plays over the last two weeks after previously playing error-free ball. Brady Tygart was lackadaisical fielding a ball that Van Horn said he should have known required more effort. Hudson White threw a ball into left field trying to throw out a runner who probably had third stolen anyway.

Despite all of those mistakes, though, Arkansas stranded the tying run on third when it lost to South Carolina and lost to Kentucky by only three — a difference that could simply boil down to the Wildcats’ two unearned runs in the first and the Ben McLaughlin home run they robbed in the second, an example of how defense can win or lose a game.

Those two games were part of a disappointing stretch to end the regular season, as Arkansas went just 3-7 in its last 10 games. That doubled the Razorbacks’ losses, as they had been 40-7 after winning the opening game of the Kentucky series.

It’s worth noting that four of those losses came on the road against projected top-8 national seeds in Kentucky and Texas A&M. One of them was at home against Mississippi State, a potential regional host, while the other two were at the SEC Tournament, including another loss to the Wildcats.

Sputtering into the NCAA Tournament probably isn’t ideal, but Arkansas is still going to be a top-8 seed and the last team to go 3-7 entering the postseason as a top-8 seed was Florida State in 2012. The Seminoles made the College World Series last year.

In fact, as pointed out by Arkansas baseball fan Cory Stewart, known by many as StewHog on YouTube, four of the last seven top-8 seeds who entered the NCAA Tournament with a sub-.500 mark in their last 10 games still made it to Omaha.

There’s precedent for such a turnaround at Arkansas, too. The 2009 team limped into the NCAA Tournament winning only three of its final 13 games. It lost its last eight regular-season SEC games, with only a 3-2 midweek win over Oral Roberts mixed in, before going 2-2 in Hoover. The Razorbacks ended up reaching the College World Series semifinals, losing its two games to eventual national champion LSU.

Needless to say, all hope is not lost. Arkansas has put itself in a position to host a regional and super regional at a place where it’s gone 33-3.

At the same time, it needs to flip the switch we’ve so often seen Van Horn’s teams flip when the calendar turns to June.

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StewHog goes in-depth on why the SEC Tournament, in his words, is “dumb” in a video originally posted last year but still rings true:

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More coverage of Arkansas baseball and the SEC Tournament from BoAS… 

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