2014 NCAA Tournament: How Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee broke the SEC's fever

Basketball has always been a bit of a running joke in a football-first conference, but with the three teams in the Sweet 16, SEC basketball is making it back to the big-time in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

It was a funny joke back when I first saw Pod Katt, of And The Valley Shook, use #SECBasketballFever, the catch-all hashtag for the struggles of various SEC basketball teams, applied to anything the venerable football league's vulnerable basketball squads did wrong. He didn't start the hashtag, but he absolutely popularized it, dropping it often from November 2012 on.

And the hashtag has stayed funny for most of its life, but three SEC teams have made this year's Sweet 16, and the fever seems to be broken now. How did this happen?

Blame it on a combination of three elite teams being in the 2013-14 SEC all along, scheduling non-conference and conference slates that made it hard for a middle class to distinguish itself and, yes, regional bias that made it tough to accept the SEC for what it was.

And credit Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee for being good through it all.

These Sweet 16 teams were always good

Florida and Kentucky were never going to miss the NCAA Tournament, not unless the bottoms fell out on their seasons as it did for Kentucky in 2012-13 when losing Nerlens Noel turned the Wildcats into just another SEC team. And this year, both teams had too much talent for that to happen.

Florida goes seven deep with excellent contributors, and even when only six (or five, or four) of them were available in non-conference play, the worst things the Gators did were lose to Wisconsin and UConn — both now Sweet 16 teams — on the road and in close games, and enter halftime tied with Arkansas-Little Rock before smoking the Trojans by 30 points in the second half. Florida beat Kansas at home and beat Memphis in Madison Square Garden, entered conference play at 11-2 ... and hasn't lost since. No one thought Florida wasn't elite, not really.

Kentucky left a little room for doubt. Yes, the 'Cats played Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina away from Rupp and lost, but they also beat Louisville rather convincingly in Rupp, and stacked their non-conference schedule to the point that even an awful performance in SEC play couldn't dislodge them from the NCAA Tournament field. That relatively awful stretch in conference play included losing twice to Arkansas and once each to LSU and South Carolina, and getting beaten soundly by Florida twice before rallying to make the SEC Tournament final ... where Florida beat it again, though less soundly.

But there were always flashes of jaw-dropping greatness for the Wildcats, and finally stringing those flashes into full games near the end of the season gave Kentucky fans hope that their team could be what it was hyped up to be. That hope that rewarded Sunday by the best game any team played against Wichita State this season.

Tennessee had all of Kentucky's problems, and then some. Its relatively rugged non-conference schedule lacked the middle-class gristle that Kentucky's had, leaving the Vols alternating between big wins (Virginia, Xavier), puzzling losses (UTEP, North Carolina State), and the kinds of wins that don't help (The Citadel, Tennessee State). Had Tennessee beaten Wichita State — and the Vols came the closest of any team that visited Wichita this year — it would have had a very good NCAA Tournament résumé. Because the Vols didn't, and because Virginia took forever to become an excellent pelt on the Vols' wall, they had a lot of work to do in conference play.

And Texas A&M and Florida worked the Vols instead. A&M got big shots from little-used Antwan Space in each game of its bizarre season sweep of Tennessee, and Florida pressed the Vols to death in Gainesville then shut them down late in Knoxville. Add in losses to Vanderbilt and Missouri, and an understandable loss at Kentucky, and Tennessee was looking iffy for a Tourney bid ... until it caught fire late in the year, and became the nation's hottest team, laying SEC foes as low as Florida did in 2013, when the Gators ran roughshod over the league's bad teams.

With a win over Missouri and Arkansas' SEC Tournament loss to South Carolina, Tennessee effectively Highlander'd its way to the SEC's NCAA Tournament bid, and in the process managed to find the form that had eluded it for most of the two months of conference play, which was just as valuable.

And so the SEC got its three best teams into the NCAA Tournament, and all of them entered in hot, with Kentucky and Tennessee losing only to Florida in their final five pre-Tournament games.

Non-conference scheduling hampered the rest

Outside of Florida and Kentucky, the SEC does not have name-brand teams that can schedule other name-brand teams in non-conference play. And the SEC's region is generally lacking in good teams to play in non-conference games. This leaves the conference's middle class in a bind that is difficult to get out of unscathed.

For Tennesseee, the way out of that bind and into March was playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis, visiting Wichita State and playing Virginia. The Vols' good luck that Wichita State and Virginia both had No. 1 seed seasons helped mitigate the bad luck of playing three teams at the Battle 4 Atlantis that wouldn't get to Thursday of the NCAA Tournament.

For Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi and Missouri, non-conference scheduling was the first nail in the coffin.

Alabama did itself in with rigor, playing seven top-100 KenPom teams and going 2-5 in those games, though none by more than 10 points. Swapping even two of those losses for wins against middling teams might have given the Tide a margin for error in conference play, though losses to Drexel and USF were going to be anchors no matter what.

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Photo: Kevin C. Cox

Arkansas forgot the "where you play them" part of the "who you play, who you beat and where you play them" shorthand for selection committee criteria that should guide non-conference scheduling, only leaving its home state once to play in the Maui Invitational. The Hogs also arguably forgot the "who you play" bit, larding their December schedule with a bunch of bad teams around Clemson, though it's understandable for good teams to not want to visit Fayetteville.

Alabama and Arkansas at least played a handful of good teams. Georgia's best non-conference game was one of Nebraska, Colorado or George Washington; LSU's was one of UMass. Memphis or Saint Joseph's; and Mississippi's was one of Oregon, Kansas State or Dayton. Missouri's had a strong non-conference win against UCLA, but their second-best non-con clash was Illinois, in a game it lost.

Some of this lack of schedule rigor is not these SEC teams' fault. LSU could not have predicted Butler would fall off a cliff without Brad Stevens, and Arkansas certainly hoped for more from Gonzaga than a rather lackluster season by the Zags' standards. The SEC's proximity to bad conferences like the Atlantic Sun, Big South, SoCon and SWAC creates an inevitability that its teams will play terrible opponents in the sorts of games that either drag down RPI ratings with wins or destroy RPI ratings with losses. And that scheduling makes winning a bunch of games or taking a few big wins in conference play a must.

The SEC schedule helped very few teams

The problem was that Florida won all of the games and got all of the big wins.

With 14 teams, 18 conference games for each team and no divisions, the SEC basketball schedule gives each team home and road games against five other SEC teams and one game against the eight remaining teams. This year, for example, Florida played Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee twice, and every other team once. Alabama and Auburn took good shots at Florida, but couldn't pull out wins. The five other teams that could have used two shots at Florida — Arkansas, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi and Missouri — only got one.

That worked out for Florida, sort of. Even though it had to beat Kentucky and Tennessee home and away, it only had to see most of the league's desperate punchers once. And getting swept by Florida probably didn't hurt Kentucky and Tennessee much, because those losses were to the team that finished the season No. 1 in RPI.

But the scheduling managed to hurt the middle class. Georgia cruised to a 12-6 record in SEC play, but played all three NCAA Tournament teams just once. LSU didn't get to host Florida in the building where it defeated Kentucky. Arkansas swept Kentucky but had to play (and lost) most of its road games early. Missouri had to play its only games against Kentucky and Florida in a four-day span.

Mississippi may be the only team that can't complain to the front office in Birmingham. It simply failed to win the games it needed to win, getting a front-loaded schedule and hosting Kentucky and Florida in the same week.

And with a bunch of middle-class teams falling on the wrong side of the bubble ...

It was easy to discredit the SEC

One of the persistent knocks on Florida, which beat every team it played from the second week of December onward, was that it "hadn't beaten anyone." Florida ended up playing six teams that won at least one NCAA Tournament game, and four Sweet 16 teams. It owns a 6-2 record against those Sweet 16 teams thanks to 3-0 records against both Kentucky and Tennessee, but the charge stuck and it affected every other team in the league. Kentucky and Tennessee couldn't beat Florida once? Auburn had Florida where it wanted it, but choked? South Carolina, the team that beat Kentucky, got lit up by the Gators? The SEC had but one possible emperor, and the suspicion in some circles was that the emperor had no clothes. What else could pundits make of the empire?

But it wasn't Florida's fault that the league looked so poor; it was Florida's lack of a proper sparring partner that really killed perception of the SEC. Florida's games with Tennessee were good games between good teams, and so were the ones against Kentucky, but Florida was so dominant when it mattered in those games that the takeaways were principally about Florida being better off or Kentucky and Tennessee not being on Florida's level. And neither Kentucky nor Tennessee was consistent enough in its other games to hold spots in the national rankings — the final two Florida-Kentucky games of the year featured No. 1 Florida beating unranked Kentucky.

Rankings don't really matter to the selection committee, but they do matter to fans and pundits who screech "BUT THEY HAVEN'T BEATEN A RANKED TEAM" about teams (hi, Wichita State) as a way of discrediting them. And Florida got minimal credit for those two sweeps, while Kentucky and Tennessee got impugned for the losses. Had Florida lost even one of the six games it played against the two teams, Florida would have been little worse for the wear — 2011-12 Kentucky didn't exactly get bagged on for losing to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament final after winning every game up to that point — and Kentucky and/or Tennessee would have gotten Yeah, but they beat Florida appended to its permanent record.

When the SEC got shafted on its non-Florida seeding — Kentucky became a No. 8 seed that could be the eighth-best team in the country at the drop of a hat, and Tennessee was installed as maybe the most under-seeded No. 11 seed of all time and sent to a play-in game with another candidate for that title — the stage was set for the SEC to underwhelm once again.

Instead, the league's three top teams have won seven combined NCAA Tournament games, with Kentucky handing Wichita State its first loss of the season in a classic game, Tennessee making mincemeat of UMass and Duke-slaying Mercer after outlasting Iowa, and Florida winning two games by double digits despite hitting about three shots from deep in Orlando. "How Do You Like Me Now?" would be appropriate theme music for the teams still standing from country music country.

The fever has broken, and the SEC is hot. If all three teams win their Sweet 16 matchups, the SEC will be guaranteed at least one Final Four team, with Kentucky and Tennessee on a collision course, and favored to produce two, with Florida set to meet Dayton or Stanford if it gets by UCLA. And if they don't win, the SEC can still boast that it has more Sweet 16 teams than any conference other than the Big Ten and Pac-12.

It wasn't the best conference in America, its middle class stood on shaky ground, and its second- and third-best teams weren't anywhere near the league's best in conference play. But the SEC is standing tall again, just like it usually does.

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