SEC rising again with Gators, 'Cats

Posted: April 01, 2014

THE SEC FINALLY gave up its football title so the conference just switched to basketball, where its teams have absolutely dominated this NCAA Tournament, culminating with Kentucky's classic win over Michigan yesterday in the Midwest Region final.

With the pre-tournament favorite to win it all in Florida and the team that was preseason No. 1 still alive, the SEC has half the Final Four and an 11-1 record in the tournament.

Kentucky may not have played one game all season like it just played against three potential national champions in Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan.

John Calipari never gets credit for his coaching because of all the other stuff. All his teams know how to play. It just took this team until late March to figure it out.

In this NCAA, the Wildcats have outrebounded opponents by 40. In the last three games, they have scored 1.39 points per possession, 1.22 and 1.24, incredible numbers. They went from a No. 8 seed to a team that might be the favorite in Texas.

The Harrison twins have combined to score 117 points. Julius Randle had 63 points and 48 rebounds in the four games. All three freshmen, who are zooming up the NBA draft charts, are going home for the Final Four.

In its first three NCAA games, Michigan was 32-for-65 from three while holding its opponents to 8-for-41. UK shot 7-for-11 from the arc and Aaron Harrison hit the game-winning three against hand-in-his face defense.

Friday night, the 'Cats led Louisville for 65 seconds. Cardinals were off to a 18-5 lead and would have ended it if they had not missed so many first-half free throws. The 'Ville still led, 64-57, with 5 minutes left before missing two point-blank shots, leaving the door open just a crack. UK's kids knocked it down.

Wichita could not have played much better in its loss to UK last Sunday. Kentucky won anyway.

The Wisconsin way

No turnovers and no fouls. It won Bo Ryan's teams a lot of games. It was not a formula to beat the kinds of teams you meet late in the tournament, teams with superior firepower. So, Ryan tweaked the formula the last few seasons, had his team start firing up more threes and play a slightly faster tempo. With shooters all over the floor and the inside/outside threat that is 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, Ryan rode the formula all the way to Dallas.

On the season, Wisconsin has outscored teams by 318 points at the arc and 221 points at the foul line, an incredible 539-point differential over 37 games.

In the tournament, Wisconsin is 33-for-84 from the arc (39.3 percent), has committed just 33 turnovers and 63 fouls. And when nothing else was working in the West Regional final against Arizona, Ryan did exactly the three things Charles Barkley suggested at halftime on TBS in his "Coaching With Chuck" segment - "get the ball to Mr. Kaminsky, get the ball to Mr. Kaminsky, get the ball to Mr. Kaminsky."

Kaminsky was brilliant with 28 points and 11 rebounds. He also made himself a lot of money as the prototypical "stretch 4" that NBA teams have come to love.

Chester connection

It was 10 years ago when the greatest player ever produced by the basketball-loving city of Chester just missed the Final Four with Saint Joseph's. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was the Chester High point guard 35 years before Jameer Nelson and, every time it finally looked liked Ryan was going to get his team to the Final Four, another Chester High grad, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the star of Chester's unbeaten 2012 state champions, would make a basket for Arizona.

When the West final matchup was finalized early Friday morning, it was clear that Chester was finally going to be represented on college basketball's biggest stage - just a question of the young player or the old player, the Arizona player or the Wisconsin coach.

It was the coach. It was Bo.

Brutal loss

Arizona rode its best-in-the nation defense within two points of the Final Four. And who knows what happens if forward Brandon Ashley (11.5 points, 5.8 rebounds) does not go down with a ligament injury to his right foot 2 minutes into the game at California. The Wildcats were 21-0 at the time.

Coach Sean Miller did a great job at Xavier, getting "X" to the Elite 8. He is doing an equally great job at Arizona, twice getting 'Zona to the Elite 8. It is only a question of when he gets his team to the Final Four.

No way 'Zona should have beaten San Diego State on Thursday, but Miller willed his team home. Star Nick Johnson should have given up after going 0-for-10. Instead, he scored 15 of his team's last 16 points.

Nearly perfect

Florida has won 30 straight after dispatching Dayton in the South Regional final. The Gators are very close to 36-0. Their two losses were at fellow Final Four teams Wisconsin and Connecticut. Point guard Scottie Wilbekin and key sub Dorian Finney-Smith did not play against the Badgers. Wilbekin missed the final minutes at UConn when Shabazz Napier picked up a loose ball and hit the game winner at the buzzer. The Gators beat Kentucky three times, but they have not played this version of Kentucky.

This is not the future NBA talent that Billy Donovan had in 2006 and 2007 when Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer overwhelmed opponents and were all off the board after nine picks in the 2007 NBA draft. This is four seniors, none of whom may even be drafted, a team that had lost in the Elite 8 3 consecutive years, a team in the best sense of the word.

Donovan has done a brilliant job with this team. If he wins his third national title in 9 years, he should immediately be sent to Springfield to take his place in the Hall of Fame.

The conferences

That Florida never lost an SEC game looked even more impressive each time Tennessee and Kentucky took the court in the NCAA. Tennessee dominated overtime against Iowa in the First Four before blowing away Massachusetts and Mercer. And maybe they catch and pass Michigan if they get a block instead of a charge at the end of Friday's regional semifinal.

Other BCS conferences: Big Ten (10-5), Pac-12 (8-6). ACC (6-7) and Big 12 (6-7). The Big 12 gets an asterisk as Kansas did not have Joel Embiid and Iowa State lost Georges Niang in its first game.

The American is a strong 7-3, with UConn in the Final Four and SMU, obviously deserving of an NCAA bid, in the NIT semis.

The local league story

The Atlantic 10 had a sensational season, rewarded by five at-large bids. The league won four NCAA games (three by Dayton) and lost two in overtime. No fan base deserved a great run any more than Dayton's.

The Final Four remains elusive. Since the start of the league in 1976, 13 teams have been one win away from the Final Four. They are now 1-12, going all the back to former teams Villanova (0-1), Temple (0-5) and Xavier (0-2). Rhode Island, Saint Joseph's and Dayton are each 0-1. Only Massachusetts (1996) broke through after just missing in 1995.

The new Big East got just three at-large bids and won only two games. Xavier played very poorly against North Carolina State in the First Four. Big East champ Providence was great in its loss to North Carolina.

Neither Villanova nor Creighton played very well in their two games. And it was shocking to see the Bluejays get crushed by Baylor. It is only one season, but it is at least fair to wonder about the strength of the league going forward.

This and that

There have been a record-tying seven overtime games in the first 64 games of the tournament . . . This is the first 4-year period without an ACC team in the Final Four since 1958-61.


Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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