By Kory Kinslow
The first night of the Sweet 16 saw the SEC team that actually got respect, with Florida playing 4 seed UCLA. UCLA kept it close for a while, but Florida ended up dominating the second half with a 79-68 win for the Gators. The SEC Player of the Year and SEC Tournament MVP Scotty Wilbekin took over in the second half after a sub-par first half. He showed the toughness that has propelled this Florida team all year round and won them the overall number 1 seed in this tournament.
In night two of the Sweet 16 portion of the NCAA Tournament had both Tennessee and Kentucky
representing the SEC. Tennessee played 2 seed Michigan first. All of
the under-dog talk in the Sweet 16 was of 11 seed Dayton, well,
Tennessee was the forgotten number 11 seed. They had to play a tougher
game and had to play an extra game to get here by playing in the first
round. They had to play a 2 seed in Michigan in the round of 16, but
still put up a valiant effort. They played tough until the bitter end.
Their heroics came just short losing to a great team in Michigan by a
score of 71 for Tennessee to Michigan's 73.
Kentucky would play Louisville for the right to play that Michigan team in the elite 8. Louisville, despite being a 4 seed, was favored by many to be in the Final Four, but Friday night belonged to the SEC's Wildcats. Kentucky pulled out a tough battle 74-69. The Freshman all played well, along with the bench, for Kentucky. Kentucky has a ton of talent and deserved to win this game. With this, the SEC was 9-1 in the tournament going into the round of eight.
The Big Ten was in the lead with three teams remaining out of six bids, the SEC had two teams out of three bids, the American Conference had one team with Uconn out of four bids, Dayton was left out of the Atlantic Ten out of six bids, and the Pac-12 had one team with Arizona out of six bids. As you can see, the best percentage of teams left easily came with the SEC.
On night one of the Elite Eight Florida played Dayton. Dayton was actually favored by some, but Florida proved their worth. They bullied Dayton, forced a fast pace with their defense, and Wilbekin played a great game again. Wilbekin absolutely dominated just by being on the floor. Not only did he score over twenty again, but he was a true leader. He would not let his team take a back shot when trying to end the game. The big men on the inside gave Dayton nothing underneath. Dayton hit some three pointers that kept them in, they had a few baskets off of penetration when Florida would pressure, but Florida proved to be more talented and more disciplined in what they do.
Florida was the best team in the SEC, ranked number one in the country, and would await the winner of Uconn and Michigan State to see who they would play in the Final Four. This gives the SEC one of four in the Final Four with only three teams getting into the tournament, that would be a victory in itself. What Kentucky does, makes it very interesting to see how the SEC may not have gotten the respect for their league that they deserved.
On night two of the Elite Eight Kentucky would play the number 2 seed in the Michigan Wolverines. On paper, this game looked like it could be a great offensive battle. The Wildcats simply over-powered the Wolverines. Michigan played a great game, they did what they do, but it wasn't enough. Kentucky came in and got down by as many as ten, coming back in the second half on the back of offensive rebounding and the peremiter play of the Harrison twins.
Aaron Harrison hit 4 huge three point baskets in the second half for a total of twelve points and hit the eventual game winner with little more than two seconds left. Andrew Harrison had only eight points, but came through with 6 assists. James Young contributed with 13 points and Julius Randle was huge with eleven rebounds and sixteen points. The surprise of the night was the little played Freshman, Marcus Lee had ten points and eight rebounds. The big man made a big difference and Kentucky proved what the SEC can do.
The SEC now has half of the final four. Kentucky will be playing Wisconsin, a 2 seed from the Big 10, while Florida will be playing 7 seed Uconn out of the American Conference. The SEC is 11-1 with only three entries into the tournament this year. They have won more games than any other conference. The Big Ten is 10-4 with only Wisconsin left. They started the tournament with six teams. The American conference now has one team left with four to start with. They have a record of 7-3. There are three other conferences that had six bids with no teams left and the Big 12 had 7 teams and now has no teams in the Final Four.
For all of the talk about it being a down year for the SEC, it sure seems they have done quite well. The teams that didn't make the tournament, but were close or in the NIT should all be better next year, Auburn will have Bruce Pearl as a coach, and Kentucky and Florida always re-load, not re-build. The SEC should get more respect next year, and this year isn't even over.
If Kentucky can continue to play the way they have, they truly should beat a very game Wisconsin team. Wisconsin has good big men, but they're more of the pic and pop type. They can rebound, but I think the bulk of Kentucky could really come into play. Florida will play Uconn. This will be an interesting match-up of gaurds, but Uconn shouldn't be able to match up inside with the likes of Young. Wilbekin can keep up with anyone and it should be a game up for Florida's taking.
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