LIKE IT IS:

SEC can pound chest if it gets 3 in Sweet 16

By: Wally Hall
Published: Sunday, March 23, 2014
Arkansas guard Rashad Madden (00) looks for room while being guarded by Florida guard Michael Frazier II (20) as Florida coach Billy Donovan, left, watches in Fayetteville, Ark. during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. Florida won 84-82 in overtime. (AP Photo/David Quinn)
Arkansas guard Rashad Madden (00) looks for room while being guarded by Florida guard Michael Frazier II (20) as Florida coach Billy Donovan, left, watches in Fayetteville, Ark. during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. Florida won 84-82 in overtime. (AP Photo/David Quinn)

Florida hasn’t proven anything yet.

Well, it did demonstrate a great defensive effort in the second half Saturday that led to its victory over Pittsburgh, which allowed the Gators to advance to the Sweet 16.

The overall No. 1 seed is supposed to get to the Sweet 16. Granted, the Gators became the first higher-seeded team to win the opening game of the day. Ohio State and Duke both bowed out in the first games on Thursday and Friday.

Now, if Tennessee and Kentucky join their SEC champion brother in the Sweet 16, the basketball world might take notice that the SEC was better than most thought. And it isn’t a stretch to believe the Vols and Wildcats will advance today.

Tennessee takes on Mercer, the giant killer that sent No. 3 Duke home in the first game Friday, but Mercer lost senior center Monty Brown to a concussion that was so severe he couldn’t remember the game - he played only nine minutes - and was confined to a dark room Saturday.

The Wildcats draw No. 1 and undefeated Wichita State. The Shockers don’t have a roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans, but they are a balanced, experienced, finely tuned basketball team that made it to the Final Four a year ago.

As of now the SEC is 5-0 in the NCAA Tournament, and while the Gators haven’t really looked as good as expected, they have taken care of business.

They started slowly Saturday, then hit a couple of threes late in the first half to take a 27-22 halftime lead. But in the second half the Gators flexed their defensive muscle and SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin did his thing en route to a 21-point game as Florida won 61-45.

Florida held the Panthers to 9-of-26 shooting from the floor in the second half, forced 6 turnovers for a total of 10, and now will leave its backyard of Orlando as it moves on to Memphis.

The Gators have won 27 consecutive dating to Dec. 2, when they lost at UConn 65-64. Their only other loss was at Wisconsin. Both UConn and Wisconsin made the NCAA Tournament, and won their first-round games.

In that streak, the toughest game Florida had was Jan. 11 in Fayetteville when it went into overtime to defeat the Arkansas Razorbacks 84-82. The Gators have had a few close games, but that was the only game this season that they needed overtime to claim a victory.

The Gators will face the winner of today’s game between No. 4 UCLA and No. 12 Stephen F. Austin, the pride of the Southland Conference, which shocked Virginia Commonwealth 77-75 in overtime.

The Lumberjacks got a huge gift with 3.6 seconds left in regulation when Desmond Haymon hit a three-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw.

That’s the type of storyline that makes the NCAA Tournament so successful, and there have been plenty of stories in this year’s tournament with three of the four No. 5 seeds losing their opening game.

Florida hasn’t come close to being upset, but until the final 20 minutes Saturday it hadn’t been nearly as dominating as most believed it would be. Still, even for the overall No. 1 seed, the motto is survive and advance and the Gators have done that.

Now, the SEC needs Tennessee and Kentucky to step up and take care of business. Those three were clearly the best of the conference this year and, with a hint of irony, if the conference hadn’t eliminated East and West divisions they would have all been from the beast that is the East.

The West is football, the East is basketball, and today the SEC has a chance to make a statement by having three teams in the Sweet 16 with a chance for two to advance to the Final Four.

Sports, Pages 23 on 03/23/2014

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