Once a week, SEC Digital Media Director Eric SanInocencio will share insights on the inner-workings of the conference office.
Birmingham, Ala. -- I have to admit it, I never saw this coming. I, despite my normally optimistic attitude, started to believe what I heard on TV. SEC basketball is in the midst of a "down year" and would be lucky to get three teams in the NCAA Tournament. Even when former Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl told me at SEC Media Days
that he felt "five teams could make the NCAA from the East Division alone", I didn't believe it.
Certain losses during the year didn't help the league's cause. Tough setbacks and struggling squads proved for a competitive schedule, but the national perception of the conference continued to dwindle as the calendar turned to March.
An exciting SEC Tournament brought some hope
, with the idea beginning to take shape that perhaps tournament champion Kentucky or their opponent in the title game, Florida, could succeed despite the preconceived notion that the nation's top conference wouldn't be a big part of the "Big Dance". But just how many teams would get in? Four? Five? Three? There was no way to know for sure.
Once the NCAA bracket was unveiled
, I, like many other SEC followers, had mixed emotions. The league garnered five bids, all from the Eastern Division, which was what Pearl predicted. Georgia, despite their late season struggles, snuck into the big board and gave the SEC a strong showing, validating the committee's feelings of the league's ability to compete. That was very exciting.
However, on the flip side, sadness crept in. The Western Division champion, a team no one saw climbing to the top of the standings, was left at home. The Alabama Crimson Tide
, despite a valiant effort and solid stretch run in conference action, was nowhere to be found, and for that you were a little disappointed. Seeing as how Georgia and Alabama had just squared off in the SEC Tournament, most figured the Crimson Tide's win would make them the choice for the "Big Dance", all but eliminating Georgia's chances in what was hyped as a "play in game" at the Georgia Dome.
Alas, the selection committee thought otherwise, keeping the SEC's tally at five and changing the focus from who got in to who could possibly make a deep run in the madness.
Seeding was tough for everyone. Other than Florida, who was given a two-seed for their regular season success, no one had a clear path to anything past the opening round. Tennessee drew a tough Michigan squad, Georgia squared off against Sweet 16 sleeper Washington, and Vanderbilt was set to take on the ever pesky Richmond Spiders. Even Kentucky, who had played fabulous during a torrid stretch in Atlanta to capture the SEC Tournament Championship, found themselves as a four seed on the same side of the bracket as overall number one Ohio State. Who was going to make noise?
By now, you know the answer to that question. The Kentucky Wildcats
, who have gone through arguably the toughest gauntlet of teams of anyone in the entire tournament (Princeton, West Virginia, Ohio State, North Carolina), have advanced to Houston for a shot at the National Championship. An interesting story indeed, as this Wildcat squad was often times portrayed in the media as a talented team, but one in the shadow of the history making class of 2010, which had five NBA first round picks graduate from Lexington.
This unit, led by a mixture of blue chip talent (Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones) and blue collar toughness (DeAndre Liggins, Josh Harrellson), now find themselves in a place the 2010 mega class couldn't reach. They are at the Final Four, just two wins away from cutting down the nets and adding another title to Kentucky's long list of championship tradition.
But, before we gush on more about Kentucky's magical run, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the great job done by Billy Donovan's Gators. A senior-laden team who epitomized the calm demeanor of their coach, they made a strong run and fell a few jump shots short of joining their Eastern Division rival in Houston. After dispatching talented teams such as UCLA and BYU, they failed to close the storybook on one of the two Cinderella stories this year in Butler.
Going into this season's Elite Eight, I felt a sense of déjà vu. Why? The SEC was in the same spot as a year ago, when Kentucky and Tennessee both reached this same level, and were within moments of turning last year's Final Four into the SEC Tournament. So, when Florida and UK achieved that status this season, I held pause. I didn't want to assume anything, because as we all know, last year didn't work out.
I'll tell you a little more about last year. SECDigitalNetwork.com
was a shell of its 2011 new and improved self, and the crack staff running the website was preparing for what coverage we could add should one of our teams make the Final Four. Yours truly, sitting in front of the television moments before Kentucky took the court against West Virginia, was looking at flights, checking car rental prices and preparing an in-depth report on the costs associated with such a trip.
I was more than prepared for my trek to Indianapolis, considering a visit to "Naptown" a certainty with the way our teams (UT and UK) were playing. I told my boss to book travel, and that we'd need to meet as a group to strategize what coverage we wanted to focus on. The optimist in me was already penciling in an SEC rematch in the NCAA Championship Game. I really thought with the apparent Final Four matchups should they advance (UT vs. Butler, UK vs. Duke) that it wasn't possible, but likely to happen. All they had to do was get there. No way they would both get eliminated.
Well, as you already know, they did. A cold shooting Kentucky team couldn't solve West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone, and Tennessee couldn't convert some key late baskets and lost to Michigan State. We went from a hope of conference history to an abrupt end of the season. This didn't happen over the period of a few weeks, but within 24 hours, making the sour feelings of disappointment all the more tough to swallow.
There would be no such feelings in 2011, as even though Florida couldn't advance, Kentucky found a way to capture victory. In their 76-69 win over North Carolina, the pessimist in me crept in at certain times, with John Calipari's bunch fighting to hold on despite UNC's hard charges in the second half. When UNC's Harrison Barnes went on his own personal scoring run late in the second half, the Cats looked vulnerable.
Only using a core rotation of six players, a tired group of athletes appeared to be trying to hold off the inevitable. However, Kentucky wouldn't wilt in the moment. Key plays by Harrellson, Liggins, Knight and more kept North Carolina at bay, sealing the win and punching UK's ticket to Houston.
Ironically, despite the SEC's presence in Houston, I myself will not be among the masses of media in attendance. In the past year, we've added great columnists for many of our sports, and that honor will fall to our "Blue Ribbon" writer, Chris Dortch, will lead the SEC Digital Network's coverage. Expect great work from Chris, as he gives us all a behind the scenes look at what will happen in Houston.
So, despite this long-winded column's attempt to recap the 2011 "March Madness", I can't help but come back to my opening remarks. Did you expect this to happen? I sure didn't. Going into this weekend, I don't know what to expect either. But, I will no longer doubt the SEC's chances on the biggest stage. Bring it home Wildcats!