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    SEC Traditions: A Final Four Rain Check

    By: Ron Higgins
    SEC Digital Network

    SEC basketball fans have felt empty the last few days.

    It’s Final Four weekend, and the league is experiencing rarity of not having at least one men’s or women’s team in their respective Final Fours.

    How rare? It’s just the fifth time in the last 33 seasons. The SEC had a streak at one point of having at least one team in the men’s or women’s Final Fours 26-of-28 years.

    In 1996, the SEC swept both the men (Kentucky) and women (Tennessee) national championships, the same year the SEC had two teams each in the men’s and women’s Final Fours. The SEC has won men’s and women’s Big Dances together three times – ’96 and ’98 with Kentucky men and Tennessee women and 2007 with Florida men and Tennessee women.

    There could have been even more times where the women advanced two teams to Final Fours and won more national titles. SEC women’s teams have played each other in regional finals nine times, in Final Four semis four times and in the championship game twice.

    The only occasion in SEC men’s history where league teams played each other in the NCAA tourney came at the 1986 Southeast Regional at the Omni in Atlanta.

    In a semifinal, top-seeded Kentucky beat third-seeded Alabama, 68-63. Then in the finals, the Wildcats were stunned by 11th seeded LSU, 59-57, after the Tigers had eliminated No. 2 seed Georgia Tech in the semis.

    Here’s a look at the SEC’s most dominating Final Four teams over the last 50 years:

    KENTUCKY 1996-98
    A cumulative 104-11 overall, 43-5 in the SEC.
    Hardware: Two national championships in ’96 and ’98, national runner-up ’97, two SEC regular season championships, three SEC tournament championships
    Number of players who advanced to play in the NBA: 11, including eight first-round draft choices.

    Only an overtime loss to Arizona in the ’97 national championship game in what was Rick Pitino’s final game as UK’s coach prevented Big Blue from winning three straight national championships.

    Pitino, who along with Arkansas’ Nolan Richardson brought a running, pressing style to the SEC that changed the complexion of the league, took the Wildcats from the depths of NCAA probation incurred by the previous staff, to the Final Four in his fourth season in 1992-93.

    Though UK lost to Michigan in overtime in the ’93 semifinals, it set the stage for Pitino’s building progress, finding the athletes and shooters necessary to play his frenetic system. By the time 1995-96 rolled around, Pitino was feeling confident, but not cocky about his team’s chances.

    “This is the quickest, fastest, team that I’ve had here,” Pitino said before the season. Forward Antoine Walker admitted, “We’re one of the most talented teams in the country.

    Senior Tony Delk, who averaged 17.8 points per game, led the ’96 team. But having 6-10 senior Walter McCarty and 6-8 sophomore Antoine Walker as inside threats (who could also operate outside) gave the Wildcats some paint muscle most of Pitino’s past UK teams didn’t have.

    It’s why the ’96 34-2 Wildcats’ marched through the SEC 16-0, the first perfect league slate since Alabama in 1956. They had winning streaks of 27 and 6 games, with losses to UMass in the second game of the season and in the SEC tourney finals to upstart Mississippi State (which also advanced to the Final Four).

    Kentucky had double-digit victory margins in 30 of 35 games and was the last SEC team to average at least 90 points per game (91.4). UK scored more than 120 points in back-to-back games vs. LSU (129-97) and TCU (124-80), something that is probably still a SEC record.

    In the NCAA tourney, the ’96 Wildcats victory margins starting in the first round were 38, 24, 31, 20, 7 and 9.

    Pitino went 10 to 11 deep on his bench, resulting in fresh legs, big numbers and solid team chemistry.

    “Chemistry is one of the most important vehicles in any team sport,” Pitino said the day before he won his first national title over Syracuse (and getting his second Monday night when he coached Louisville to the championship over Michigan). “And no matter how good a motivator you may think you are, if guys aren't playing, there's no way you can motivate them. Because the present is what's important to young people. And by everybody understanding that when they take layup lines they are going to play, their emotional level, their concentration, their closeness with the team obviously goes to greater heights.”

    “I think, that everybody knows that they're going to have the opportunity to play and then you can practice hard.”

    Two years later, after Pitino had left the Wildcats to coach the NBA's Boston Celtics, Tubby Smith became the first coach ever to win a national championship in his first year leading a program.

    That ’98 UK team had no one who was a regular starter on the ’96 national title team, yet they got past Stanford in overtime in the Final Four semis 86-85 before beating Utah in the finals, 78-69.

    “Certainly there were concerns about whether when you follow in the foot steps of such an outstanding coach as Rick Pitino, or any excellent or outstanding person, it's tough,” Smith said after the title game win. “But personally it's great and gives me great satisfaction.

    “I asked Coach (UK athletic director C.M.) Newton, `Did we really win the national championship?’ Someone pinch me. I'm not sure how I would react. It is funny, a great feeling.”
    FLORIDA 2006-07
    A cumulative 68-11 overall, 23-9 in the SEC.
    Hardware: Two national championships in ’06 and ’07, one SEC regular season championship, two SEC tournament championships
    Number of players who advanced to play in the NBA: 11, including eight first-round draft choices.

    In this day and age, college basketball coaches can’t keep talented teams together. The lure of big NBA money is too strong for most college players to ignore.

    Which is why as great as Florida’s 2006 national championship seemed at the moment, to have all the starters return to make a successful title run repeat in ’07 is nothing short of remarkable. Five of Florida’s players got picked in the ’07 NBA draft, and most of those were have been chosen in ’06 had they not come back for a second year.

    The Gators were more impressive in the title defense season, with every team gunning at them. There was only one dip in the season, when Florida lost three of four games in 11 days before closing with 10 straight wins including nine in the postseason.

    “They could have set sail, and ridden off into the sunset after winning the (’06) national championship and left the program while being on top,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said during the midst of the remarkable road to a repeat. And I think it says a lot about their character.

    “It's totally abnormal what they've done. Totally, totally against the grain. Totally abnormal. Here's a group of kids that chose University of Florida, one another, playing with each other, and happiness over all the materialistic things that are out there that entice kids to leave.

    “The reasons they chose were basically one reason only: happiness and their joy of playing with one another.

    "They chose happiness first. Hopefully they're better players, they're better people, and they're more prepared for the next step in their life, whenever that time is, because of what they've had to go through the last several years at Florida.”

    There were plenty of in-your-face personalities in the Gators’ lineup, led by forward Joakim Noah and high-flying swingman Corey Brewer. It balanced the coolness of center Al Horford and guard Lee Shepherd, and the versatile Taurean Green.

    Florida’s ’07 team is one of two SEC teams that have won a national title shooting better than 50 percent (52.6) from the field for the season, and the only league team to finish as national championship that shot at least 40 percent (40.9) from three-point range.

    “Hopefully it will be viewed as one of the best college basketball teams to ever play the game,” said Brewer, just after collecting Final Four MVP honors in ’07 when he averaged 16 points and 5 rebounds in wins over Ohio State in the finals and UCLA in the semis. “You can argue it, but you got to put us up there. Some guy was talking on TV, a little motivation today; he said we're not even the top five teams to play the game if we win the national championship. Might want to go do his research. The numbers don't lie, you know, back-to-back. We always stick together. It's what we came back to do, is stay together. We won back-to-back.”
    ARKANSAS 1994-95
    A cumulative 63-10 overall, 26-6 in the SEC.
    Hardware: National championship ’94, national championship runner-ups ’95 and ’07, one SEC regular season championship
    Number of players who advanced to play in the NBA: 2, including one first-round draft pick.

    The Razorbacks came within 40 minutes of repeating as national champions in 1995. But Arkansas’ run to a second possible title was exhausting.
    It won its first four NCAA tourney games by a collective 15 points, including a one-point win in the first round over Texas Southern and overtime victories over Syracuse in the second round and Memphis in the Sweet 16.

    By the time, the Hogs got to UCLA and the O’Bannon brothers in the finals, they had nothing left in the tank in an 11-point loss at Seattle’s Kingdome.
    It was the end of magnificent two-year run that actually started in 1992-93 when head coach Nolan Richardson began blending true freshmen Corliss
    Williamson and Scotty Thurman with junior college transfers Corey Beck and Stewart.

    That team went 22-9 and lost in the final seconds of an East Regional semifinal to eventual national champion North Carolina.

    By the time the 1993-94 season opened in new Bud Walton Arena, Richardson had added some interesting pieces, such as 6-11 freshmen twin towers Darnell Robinson and Lee Wilson. And don’t forget Al Dillard, a 26-year old junior college guard who had ridiculously long shooting range and the greenest of lights.

    The fifth game of the season provided a clue of how explosive and unconventional the Razorbacks were going to be. In a 123-66 win over Delaware State, Dillard launched 22 of his team’s 30 three-point attempts and made 12 of the Hogs’ 20 threes.

    “Every time I come off the bench,” Dillard said, “Coach tells me, `Get ready baby, do what you do best.’ ”

    After an early SEC loss, Arkansas won 19 of its last 20 games, the only blip a 90-78 loss to Kentucky in the league tourney semifinals.

    The trademark of the Hogs was their relentless pressure and unwavering toughness.

    When was the last time a team won a national championship with a 6-7 power forward (Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson) as its primary post offense?

    Though Williamson brought the inside muscle and Scotty Thurman, who hit the game-winning three in the ’94 national championship game victory over Duke at the Charlotte (N.C.) Coliseum, it was the leadership of Beck that held Arkansas together.

    Beck never let his team forget it was playing for respect.

    “We were ranked No. 1 for a lot of the season, but people barely mention us,” Beck said at the time. “It’s like they never want to give us credit.”
    No team ever perhaps had a bigger chip on its shoulder entering a national championship game than Arkansas.

    “If we lost a game this season, we would drop (from No. 1) to No. 7,” Thurman said. “If you are Duke or North Carolina, you might drop one or two spots. Duke’s good, but it’s not like they have five Michael Jordans. They can be beat. We have no fear at all.”

    When it was over, a 76-72 Arkansas victory, the headline of the Charlotte Observer screamed, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T!”
    A cumulative 100-14 overall, 31-6 in the SEC.
    Hardware: National championships in ’94, ’95 and ’96 with a 39-0 record in ’96, one SEC regular season championship, two SEC tournament championships
    Number of players who advanced to play in the WNBA: 6, including two first-round draft picks.
    The numbers speak for themselves.

    39 wins, no losses. An average victory margin of 30.1 points. 12-0 vs. ranked teams, 16-0 vs. teams that made the NCAA tournament.

    The 1997-98 Lady Vols, the last of three straight national title teams led by all-American Chamique Holdsclaw, is the best SEC team – men’s or women’s -- in the last 50 years.

    They were the perfect blend of veterans such as Holdsclaw and point guard Kellie Jolly, and confident freshmen Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall.

    Funny thing is Lady Vols’ coach Pat Summitt was sweating about coaching a team with no post game and with such youth. Her fears quickly subsided. Because of Randall’s quickness and aggressiveness that spread throughout the freshmen class, Summitt decided to press defensively full court as much as possible.

    There are those college basketball hoopologists who believe the running, pressing style of the 39-0 Lady Vols changed the women’s basketball forever.
    “It’s changed me in a number of ways,” Summitt said moments after the perfect season was completed. “This team has taught me an awful lot about transition and defensive – different defensive schemes, because of their quickness and their commitment to be a pressing team.

    “So we're running – we ran a lot of multiple defenses. We ran a lot of different looks offensively, because we were very smart. So they've helped me expand my Xs and Os and certainly had a lot of fun in the process.”

    The best testament to the greatness of the ’98 Lady Vols came from the coach of its last victim, Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore, whose Lady Techsters lost 93-75 in the national championship game.

    “We got beat by the best basketball team I've personally ever seen,” Barmore said. “I think their team and collection of athletes have shown a greater level of play than we've seen. We saw athletes on the same team doing things we probably hadn't seen before.”


    Ron Higgins Bio

    •  Ron Higgins of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis has covered the SEC for more than 30 years.
    •  He’s a 1979 graduate of LSU and son of former LSU sports information director Ace Higgins.

    •  He is a past president of the Football Writers Association of America and an eight-time honoree as the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Writer of the Year.

    •  Working for The Commercial Appeal, Tiger Rag Magazine, the Shreveport Times, the Shreveport Journal, the Morning Advocate in Baton Rouge and the Mobile Register, he has won more than 150 national, regional and state writing awards. He has also written and co-written two books.
    •  Higgins is married to the former Paige Blanchard, also an LSU graduate, and has two sons, Carl, a Southeastern Louisiana University graduate who is serving in the military, and Jack, a high school student.