When the NCAA Tournament Started just 13 days ago the SEC had three schools to represent the conference they call home. Less than the AAC (4 bids), Atlantic 10 (6 bids), ACC (6 bids), Big 12 (7 bids), Big East (4 bids), Big Ten (6 bids), Pac 12 (6 bids) and only one more than all the automatic qualifiers and the Mountain West and West Coast Conference who managed two bids themselves.
Going into the tournament, Florida having had the number 1 seed was viewed as a favorite to make their way to the final four, while Kentucky was a sexy pick to get to the sweet 16 and potentially fall to in state rival Louisville, and finally Tennessee was an after thought by some but those of us that watched them knew they were playing their best basketball at the end of the year.
With the Final Four set, Florida and Kentucky have fought their way in, while Tennessee was eliminated in their sweet 16 match up with Michigan on a controversial charging call.
But how did we get here? Let's do a little recap just for old times sake, shall we?
The 11 Seeded Tennessee Volunteers
The Volunteers snuck into this year's tournament by beating Iowa in the play in game Wednesday night (Round 1 for those that prefer the correct nomenclature). Tennessee shut down the Hawkeyes allowing only one point in overtime and eventually pulling away to win by 13, 78-65.
In their second game the Vols beat the 6 Seeded Minute Men of UMass 86 - 67 in round 2 (the old round 1) that the Volunteers controlled from the tip. Jarnell Stokes went off for 26 points and Jordan McRae was a dunking machine and were just in general too much to handle for the minute men.
To continue the fun, the Volunteers were awarded the 14th seeded Bears of Mercer who had outlasted the 3 seeded Blue Devils of Duke being the first of many games that would destroy people's brackets, but bring joy to so many as Duke went down and somewhere Dick Vitale gently cried into his coach K shaped body pillow.
All this set up a sweet 16 match up with the 2 seeded Wolverines of Michigan. Unfortunately, Tennessee got down big and couldn't quite recover. The game will probably be most remembered for a charging call against Jarnell Stokes that could have gone either way. Though if this past weekend was any indication, everything that wasn't a charge during the season is now once again a charge.
What comes next for the Volunteers?
The biggest question surrounding the Vols is the potential departure of Cuonzo Martin to another job as reports surfaced that he sits atop the list for the Marquette Golden Eagles following the surprising departure of Buzz Williams (who is not a douche) for Virginia Tech.
The other question is the future of Jarnell Stokes who has to make the tough decision of whether to stay in school for his senior year and build on the momentum created by this year's NCAA tournament run, or head out the door with teammate Jordan McRae who is a senior and potentially his coach, should Martin elect to head up to Milwaukee.
To read more on the Vols NCAA tournament run and the fate of their head coach, head over to Rocky Top Talk and get your fill.
The 8 Seeded Kentucky Wildcats
The Wildcats came into the NCAA Tournament playing their best basketball of the season and are doing their best Fab 5 impression by playing like a team of 5 star McDonalds All Americans.
In their first game the Wildcats took on the Big 12 Wildcats and Julius Randle showed that he's a man, regardless of him not being 40. Randle recorded a double double and had the announcers gushing all game long using terms like, "man child", "beast" and "grown man." The tale of the game however may have been when K-State walk on Brian Rohleder was assessed a technical foul for dunking in pregame warm ups, which is strictly a "no no" according to the NCAA, because...well who knows? The game ended up being a low scoring affair with Kentucky winning 56-49.
In their second game Kentucky took on the undefeated 1 seed Wichita State Shockers and in the best game of weekend 1 came away with a 78-76 win and shocking the Shockers (sorry, I had too.) The Harrison twins both went off for 39 combined points and Randle had another double double. Ever since the seeds were announced the talking heads let it be known that this was not fair and the whole Midwest bracket was against the Shockers, Calipari implied as much by saying the winner should have gone to the Final Four.
On Friday, Kentucky faced off against in state rival, the Cardinals of Louisville. Once again, as has been the case since the SEC tournament the freshmen of Kentucky led the way with a clutch three pointer by Aaron Harrison (I hope his friends call him A-aron) and free throws by Randle. They had been down by double digits in the first half and then seven late in the second half but they came together as they have over the past two weeks and got the job done.
In their Elite 8 game they took on the Not-As-Big-M-of-the-Midwest the Wolverines, and in a back and forth game that saw lead changes left, a raised court, clutch shots, the Wildcats prevailed and punched their ticket to their third final four in three years. Aaron Harrison hit a three pointer with 3 seconds left and that was all she wrote for the Wolverines whose last second shot was off and the tie was averted. In the first half Marcus Lee (another 5 star recruit, but only the 17th ranked in the nation) kept the Wildcats in the game with many first half dunks and a load of rebounds. Randle was a force as usual and like the rest of the freshman on this team is coming on strong as their season goes on.
What comes next for the Wildcats?
The Wildcats get the 2 seeded Wisconsin Badgers in the Final Four next Saturday at 7:49 pm central time (on TBS - good job CBS!). I've not seen much of the Badgers but I know they are led by Frank Kaminsky who at 7 feet tall can rebound and hit a clutch three pointer when you need one. He also bears a resemblance to realignment fan, Clay Travis. When and if he is drafted, I have to assume it will be by the Toronto Raptors and none of their fans will be happy.
I won't bother to attempt to preview this game as their fans would be better suited to do so. To read about the Wildcats check out A Sea of Blue for the SEC side of things and Bucky's 5th Quarter for the Big Ten perspective.
The 1 Seeded Florida Gators
The Gators came into the tournament as the number 1 number 1 seed and sitting on a 26 game winning streak lead by Prince look a like Scottie Wilbekin and not having lost since a December 2nd game at UConn. Many people had Florida in their final four and so far they have not been disappointed.
Florida in their first game got 16 seeded Albany who either gave them a game, or who the Gators did not take as seriously as they should have. But like many of Florida's wins this season they toyed with the Great Danes for about 30 minutes before sucking the life out of them with stifling defense and clutch shooting, winning in the end 67-55.
In round 3 the Gators took down the Panthers of the ACC conference 61-45 led by Wilbekin on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. The Gators came out with a bit more intensity but as has been the case all year the Gators did not dominate on the scoreboard but looked dominant nonetheless.
To get win number 29 in a row, Florida took down the final Pac 12 team left standing the Bruins of UCLA (who we beat this year as well!) The Gators shot 50% from the field for the game and got contributions up and down the lineup. They pulled out this win despite only shooting 1 for 12 from three point land in the second half, showing that this team is not a one trick pony.
Finally, for win number 30 in a row the Gators were matched up with tournament surprise elite 8 member the 11 seeded Dayton Flyers and coached by another other Miller, Archie. This game was close for much of the first 30 minutes before Dayton couldn't buy a bucket for the final 10 and the Wilbekin led Gators pulled away for their 30th win in a row.
What comes next for the Gators?
Florida takes on surprising final four participant, the UConn Huskies at 5:09 pm central time this coming Saturday (on TBS - again, good job CBS!). As noted above, the Huskies were the last team to beat the Gators and one of their two losses all season, interestingly, Wisconsin being the other. As stated above, I won't attempt to breakdown this game, for that, check out the folks (who may or may not wear jorts) over at Alligator Army for all your Florida news and The UConn Blog for all your Husky news.
What does this all mean for the SEC?
Immediately following Kentucky's wild win over the Wolverines Twitter erupted with the question of whether the pundits were wrong about SEC basketball while representing 50% of the Final Four? Throw in the fact that Tennessee had a great run and maybe, just maybe the SEC is not the terrible basketball conference it was maligned to be all season. After all, the conferences represented in the final four are the SEC, Big 10 and American Athletic Conference. Is there in fact a trickle down effect? Do high tides truly lift all boats? Maybe Georgia should have been invited to the dance in place of NC State?
For my point of view, after watching the SEC for the season and posting about it with Belegcam I think the SEC got what it deserved in the tournament. Had Georgia won some non conference games, and if Mizzou could have closed out some of those close games on the road, perhaps they would have been included as well instead of playing in the NIT. The SEC is a conference with two great teams right now, the two that could potentially meet in the Finals for the fourth time this year and that would still not change my opinion of the strength of the conference vis a vis the other conferences this year.
But what do you think? Was the SEC underrated all year? Should they have received more bids? Is the SEC an underrated basketball conference?
Be sure to put your thoughts in the comments section and let's discuss the hell out of this!