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Alabama, Missouri earn huge wins as SEC NCAA tournament profile looks even stronger

SEC Basketball Tournament - Second Round

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 09: Avery Johnson the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide gives instructions to his team against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the second round of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 9, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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The SEC’s NCAA tournament profile got even crazier on Wednesday night as Alabama and Missouri both earned crucial home wins over ranked opponents. A league that has been down the past few years, the SEC suddenly looks like it could be a potential juggernaut with a chance at a significant number of bids come March.

Playing without star freshman point guard Collin Sexton, the Crimson Tide struggled with some turnovers, but they were still able to outlast rival No. 17 Auburn for a 76-71 win. Coming into this one, the Tigers had the nation’s longest winning streak at 14 games as Alabama knocked off the hottest team in the country without its leading scorer.

Freshman John Petty replaced Sexton in the starting lineup while also replacing Sexton’s scoring punch by finishing with 27 points -- knocking down eight three-pointers during a huge performance. Petty has been inconsistent during his freshman season but he’s another potential weapon for a dangerous Alabama team that can compete with anyone in the league.

Sexton’s injury, which is said to be an abdominal issue, doesn’t appear to be anything major and he should hopefully return soon. Alabama looks like they’re surging now with three straight wins. The Crimson Tide appear to be peaking at a good time with Sexton still returning to the rotation shortly.

Nobody expected Missouri to be in position to potentially make an NCAA tournament but the Tigers could play themselves in if they continue to win games like Wednesday night’s 59-55 victory over No. 21 Tennessee. Playing the entire season so far without star freshman Michael Porter Jr., not many could have predicted the Tigers would be in this position without their potential lottery pick.

Struggling to only 41 percent shooting and 4-for-18 shooting (22 percent) from three-point range, Missouri was able to hold off the Volunteers using a balanced scoring effort. Kevin Puryear notched a double-double with a team-high 12 points and 10 rebounds as the Tiger starting lineup struggled. For Missouri to pick up a win like this on an off-night for its starting lineup says volumes about this team’s toughness -- while also proving the Tigers will be a difficult out at home.

Missouri is currently No. 17 overall in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and still beat a top-25 team in a slugfest where they couldn’t knock down anything. That bodes well for their future. And can you imagine if Porter Jr. actually did return for the end of the season? Much like Alabama, Missouri is a dangerous team with room to get better.

The wins from Alabama and Missouri show just how much deeper and stronger the SEC is this season. Some prominent bracketologists even had the league at eight current NCAA tournament teams entering Wednesday’s action. And that doesn’t even account for the two big wins these two teams just pulled off over top-25 teams. Georgia could even be a team who enters the picture as a ninth tournament contender. Alabama hasn’t made the dance since 2012 and Missouri since 2013. These two teams ascending like this shows how much the overall quality of the SEC is improving.

With Alabama and Missouri as two of the teams squarely on the bubble, these are the type of home wins that both teams need to make it to March. Since the SEC is markedly better than in the past few years, both programs will also get significantly more opportunities for quality wins to pad their resume.

It’s been a long time since the NCAA tournament had this many SEC teams in the mix to play for something in March. This could be the year the SEC finally make a major move in basketball after being strictly a football powerhouse for so long.