For all of its football flavor, the Southeastern Conference is roundballin’ with the best in the NCAA Tournament.
The SEC felt disrespected for receiving only two at-large invitations, Kentucky and Tennessee, to go along with Florida’s automatic berth for winning the conference tournament.
But the leaner SEC is meaner in the NCAA, with all three packed for the Sweet 16.
The league took down some favorites, at least by seed, along the way, and no victory was more meaningful than Kentucky’s on Sunday.
The Wildcats, seeded eighth in the Midwest Region, outlasted top-seeded Wichita State 78-76 in a breathtaking game that wasn’t decided until the Shockers’ Fred VanVleet’s three-point try went wide as the backboard glass was illuminated.
“I would say this was an Elite Eight game, and the winner should have gone to the Final Four,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
It had that feel, and so will the next one for Kentucky, which meets archrival Louisville on Friday in Indianapolis.
Tennessee tangled with the tournament darling, the Duke-beating Mercer Bears. That made the 11th-seeded Vols a favorite, and they reached their first Sweet 16 since 2010 with an 83-63 victory. They’ll join Kentucky in Indianapolis and take on Michigan.
Cuonzo Martin, the Tennessee coach, has been one of the league’s most vocal advocates and was miffed when the bracket was announced and his team was assigned an opening round game in Dayton.
“It’s unfortunate we only have three teams in,” Martin said. “I don’t think the criticism was accurate. But the teams that are in the tournament, they’ve won because they’re good teams.”
Florida might be the best. The tournament’s overall No. 1 seed has powered past two opponents and advanced to a Sweet 16 date against fourth-seeded UCLA in the South Region in Memphis, Tenn.
Until late Sunday afternoon, the Big 12 was working on an opposite dynamic. On the same floor that produced the Kentucky triumph, Kansas, the No. 2 seed in the South, fell to 10th-seeded Stanford. At that moment, Big 12 teams stood 4-5, with its top two finishers — the Jayhawks and Oklahoma —gone.
Texas went 1-1, and Oklahoma State and Kansas State dropped their openers.
The league almost needed a towel to wipe the egg from its face. The No. 1 RPI conference this season was falling hard.
Was the double round-robin schedule in a league that produced so many good teams taking its toll?
But Sunday’s later games stopped the slide. Iowa State, seeded third in the East, made up a late eight-point deficit and held off sixth-seeded North Carolina 85-83.
As the Cyclones left the floor in San Antonio, they passed Baylor players waiting to take the court and exchanged high fives. The Bears, seeded sixth in the West, capped the Big 12’s day with an 85-55 trouncing of No. 3 seed Creighton and Doug McDermott.
Iowa State forward Melvin Ejim wasn’t buying the league wastoo
tough argument. He doesn’t find it a coincidence that the teams on top of their games last week at the Big 12 Tournament, are headed to the Sweet 16. Iowa State beat Baylor for the title in Kansas City.
“It really prepared us for this tournament, especially winning (it) and going against three competitive teams night after night, playing at such a high level,” Ejim said.
Other conferences make similar claims. The Pac-12 and Big Ten were powerful, and they join the SEC with three teams remaining in the Sweet 16.
But that was expected. The Southeastern Conference was the weekend’s party crasher.