SEC shows hoops progress

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tennessee’s Rick Barnes has coached in the Big East, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12. He’s made the NCAA Tournament nearly two dozen times and advanced to the Final Four.

He’s been around. He’s seen it done a number of different ways.

So Barnes has credibility when he raves about his current league, the Southeastern Conference.

“I’ve said it all year: This league is better than everybody’s giving it credit for,” Barnes said Tuesday. “It’s not like I told you so, but the fact is this basketball league is better. What I’m ecstatic about is we’ve had to overcome the perception that it wasn’t very good, and we’ve got teams that have gone out and played good basketball.”

Long considered a football power, the SEC is showing some basketball promise. The league, which many thought might get just three teams in the NCAA Tournament a few months ago, could have three in the Elite Eight.

Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina play in the Sweet 16 on Friday night. The second-seeded Wildcats (31-5) face No. 3 seed UCLA in Memphis, Tennessee. The fourth-seeded Gators (26-8) take on No. 8 seed Wisconsin in New York City, shortly after the seventh-seeded Gamecocks (24-10) play No. 3 seed Baylor.

Given how the SEC has performed in the tournament so far, it might be foolish to bet against any of them.

Kentucky is one of the hottest teams remaining, having won 13 in a row since losing at Florida in early February. The Gators looked as solid as anyone in the first two rounds, beating East Tennessee State and Virginia by a combined 41 points. And the Gamecocks pulled off one of the bracket’s biggest upsets by knocking off No. 2 seed Duke in Greenville, South Carolina.

Throw in oh-so-close losses by Arkansas and Vanderbilt, and the SEC has reason to brag.

The Razorbacks rallied from a 17-point deficit to take a 65-60 lead in the final minutes and looked like they would stun top-seeded North Carolina in the second round. But the Tar Heels closed out the game with a 12-0 run that left Arkansas imagining what might have been .

The Commodores had similar thoughts after giving away their NCAA opener against Northwestern. Commodores guard Matthew Fisher-Davis intentionally and inexplicably grabbed Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh despite his team leading by 1. His mistake — Fisher-Davis thought Vandy was down 1 — sent McIntosh to the free-throw line for the go-ahead points with 14.6 seconds left. Vanderbilt lost 68-66.

“Our conference is pretty good,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “I don’t need to keep repeating that. I think anyone with any kind of understanding of basketball can start making those assessments on their own without me having to force feed it down their throats.”

The league has come a long way in a short time, especially considering it ranked seventh in conference RPI in 2013.