CRAWFORD | SEC's Elite Eight (basketball!) takeover bodes well for Kentucky
The SEC has three of the teams in the NCAA's Elite Eight field, and is enjoying the postseason run.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The line starts way back there, buddy. It’s not quite as long as the next room over, the crow buffet for media people who whiffed on the Presidential election, but it’s still a pretty good wait.
A funny thing happened on the way to Spring Football practice. The Southeastern Conference put three teams into the Elite Eight. It’s already guaranteed one Final Four slot, and the team that wins it will be a team that didn’t even win a game in the SEC Tournament.
Florida will play South Carolina (in its first Elite Eight appearance) for the championship of the East Regional in Madison Square Garden. Kentucky (in its 37th Elite Eight appearance) will try to give the SEC half of the Final Four when it faces North Carolina in the South Region final.
Not bad for a league that was maligned all season (present company included) and ranked fifth among all conferences in overall strength in the index compiled by Jeff Sagarin.
The SEC is the only league to put multiple teams into the Elite Eight in 2017, and let’s just say, it plans to enjoy it.
“No. There are not three SEC teams in the Elite 8. We're supposed to be a bad league. That's got to be all these other leagues, right?” Kentucky coach John Calipari said late Saturday night after his Wildcats dispatched UCLA in the round of 16.
Florida’s Mike White, still reeling from the buzzer-beating three that sent his team past Wisconsin and into the Elite Eight, echoed that.
“As a Florida Gator, sitting here as a proud Gator, (the SEC) is a football conference,” White said. “And it's a basketball conference, and it's a gymnastics conference, and a softball conference, and no one is more aware of that than the Florida Gators. There's excellence, throughout the conference in every sport. Men's and women's. But SEC basketball, do we have some momentum? Yeah, I think so. I do. And I know that the, that there's been some negativity toward the SEC, potentially underachieving over these last couple years. Within our conference we know the potential and I think that our conference has, is full of good coaches, tremendous talent, a lot of young talent, recruiting classes continue to get stronger and stronger and we have three in the Elite Eight. And who knows, I mean, I think the SEC's going to be better next year, I really do. With the guys that are coming back, and again the young talent that will continue to grow within our league.”
If you travel the SEC, you do see signs of commitment to the sport. You see some breathtaking new arenas. You see national-level coaching hires, Frank Martin at South Carolina, Ben Howland at Mississippi State, Rick Barnes at Tennessee, Bruce Pearl at Auburn. You see great young coaches, like White at Florida.
And in maybe the biggest sign that the league wanted to make a serious push in basketball (beyond the Big Blue), it hired former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese as a basketball advisor in May of last year
It had been a bit of a mystery, frankly, why the league hadn’t put things together more in basketball.
Now, an answer: Maybe it has.
No school stands to benefit from this more than the one that, let’s face it, cares about basketball the most -- Kentucky.
Going into the tournament, based on the perception of a down SEC, you wondered if the Wildcats’ had been tested enough in the conference part of the season to withstand the rigors of their draw in the tournament.
As it turns out, playing Florida twice and South Carolina and even winning twice against an Arkansas team that nearly knocked off top-seeded North Carolina may well have been better preparation than almost anyone got in the second half of the season.
“We lost two games in conference play, and everyone wants to say other conferences were better or our conference isn't as strong,” Kentucky freshman De’Aaron Fox said. “But I mean, when the tournament comes, not necessarily -- sometimes the best teams win, sometimes it takes luck -- but Florida blew us out at their place. We found out then that they were a good team, and South Carolina was ranked when we played them. And I mean, right now, they're just showing them how strong our conference is. Three teams in the Elite 8, man, that's tough to do.”
Florida’s success is vindication of computer rankings -- like Ken Pomeroy’s and Jeff Sagarin’s -- that valued the Gators highly all season. They’ve been in the top eight of Pomeroy’s rankings for two months. When they lost big man John Egbunu late in the season, everybody figured they were finished. They aren’t.
South Carolina has been under the radar all season, though the Gamecocks have had a stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking in defensive efficiency for a while. That’s the calling card of coach Frank Martin and his teams. But in the tournament, they’ve begun to blossom offensively.
If you’re looking for a similar group, look to the 2012 Louisville Cardinals, who were the best defensive team in the nation, but who reached the Final Four with the lowest team three-point shooting percentage since the three-pointer was adopted.
South Carolina’s defensive style may turn some off as not “beautiful basketball,” but it is beautiful to the Gamecocks.
“We love it. This is what gives us our edge,” Martin said after his team beat Baylor by 20, its second 20-point blowout in three tournament games sandwiched around an impressive win over Duke. “After the first -- I don't know, somewhere late November, when we played Michigan, I can't remember, that's what I'm trying to figure out when it was. I left that game, I said, this team has a chance to be the best defensive team I've coached. That was my thought process when I got home and broke that film down. My concern had been our big guys, because they're so young. Not that they can't do it, they're just so young. . . . But it's the best defensive team I've coached in college basketball. As a head coach. No doubt.”
Kentucky has a chance to finish this tournament with four straight games against teams it played during the regular season. Given the Wildcats’ talent, you have to upgrade their chances based on the way the team has improved in the past month.
The Wildcats are 3-2 against teams in the Elite Eight. Florida is 2-3. South Carolina is 1-2. The other five teams have a combined 1-2 record against teams in the Elite Eight.
And if you haven’t yet had your crow, I’m sure the SEC will fix you a to-go order while you watch the Elite Eight games.
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