Ball bounces SEC’s way, and this one is round

04/04/2014 5:29 PM

04/05/2014 12:20 AM

Mark Whitworth attended the NCAA-sponsored mock selection exercise in mid-February and did not return to the Southeastern Conference office in Birmingham with good news.

The SEC wasn’t held in high esteem then, and the actual NCAA Tournament selection and seedings in March wouldn’t be kind to the conference.

“Whether I agreed or not, it didn’t matter, but it was pretty obvious to me that the opinion of our league wasn’t favorable,” said Whitworth, the SEC’s associate commissioner for men’s basketball.

But look at the SEC now.

Saturday’s Final Four could become a five-hour infomercial for the conference. The first national semifinal matches league champion Florida against Connecticut, followed by Kentucky against Wisconsin.

Oddsmakers project a fourth Gators-Wildcats meeting of the season on Monday night, which would make it the first all-conference final since Kansas-Oklahoma stoked Big Eight pride in 1988.

This from a conference that placed half as many teams, three, into the NCAA Tournament as the Atlantic-10.

“What our teams have accomplished is terrific, and it gives us something to build on,” Whitworth said.

The bracket could not have been more unfavorable to the SEC teams. Kentucky, tied for second and the conference tournament runner-up, was assigned a No. 8 seed and was aligned with the region’s top seed, Wichita State, in its second game.

Tennessee was one of the final teams invited, tabbed a No. 11 seed and was dispatched to Dayton, Ohio, to play an additional tournament game.

But the positioning only served to inspire the teams.

The Volunteers survived Iowa in overtime in Ohio, then walloped Massachusetts and Mercer in reaching the Sweet 16.

Kentucky and its five freshmen starters found their identity in the tournament and have played at a remarkable level in defeating the Shockers and then the two teams that met for last year’s title, Louisville and Michigan.

The Gators merely have lived up to their overall top seed promise, steamrolling four opponents, all by double digits.

That makes the SEC 11-1 in the NCAA Tournament, a record that looks like an SEC football champion gunning for yet another national championship.

But the March success doesn’t excuse the pratfalls of November and December that crushed the league’s favorable ratings with the selection committee.

The SEC lost its first 10 games against ranked opponents, not breaking through until Missouri defeated UCLA on the day of the SEC football championship game.

The Gators quickly got on track, and Kentucky defeated Louisville, but the SEC had not distinguished itself and the teams were poised to whomp on each other in league play.

Georgia made an early impression, winning at Missouri. The Tigers’ best moments came in their sweep of Arkansas, and the Razorbacks took a pair from Kentucky. Those three teams, plus LSU, were at some point thinking they would make the NCAA Tournament.

League leaders were making improvement, passing the eyeball test. But with slim margins for error late in the season, some of the teams fell into the margin. The Tigers lost their final five road games. Arkansas got blasted at Alabama. And Selection Sunday was full of groans.

Now, with half of the Final Four for the fourth time in league history, the SEC can crow this weekend and deliver a message to its own teams. League play can prepare a squad for March success, but you have to get here first, and that won’t happen unless non-league schedules are upgraded.

Starting this year, all SEC nonconference schedules will be funneled into the league office and considered by Whitworth and Greg Shaheen, the former NCAA Tournament boss who has consulted with the league for this very purpose.

“We’ll have a full year with our new policy in place where we will review and approve schedules,” Whitworth said. “We’re just trying to strengthen an already pretty good product.”

Why should the nation’s top football conference care about basketball? A financial component for starters. Revenue from the NCAA Tournament is distributed to conferences based on collective success. More teams gives a conference more chances to cash in.

Also, starting next season, ESPN’s SEC Network will air more men’s basketball games than any other sport, more than 100. The platform to sell the conference will be stronger than ever, and, well, the product needs to be good TV.

Like it has been throughout March, even with limited inventory.

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