NCAA Tournament: After searching in June, SEC basketball clicking in March

Florida Gators guard Chris Chiozza (11) and Florida Gators forward Devin Robinson (1) celebrates after their team defeated the Virginia Cavaliers in the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida on Saturday, March 18, 2017. Nine months ago, the SEC was a football conference with a basketball problem.

Thanks to Alabama, the league had just won its eighth national title in a decade. The Crimson Tide and LSU looked like championship hopefuls in the fall.

And basketball? The conference had only three NCAA Tournament teams that March, including one that appeared in the play-in game. How to fix the problem was a key topic of discussion at the SEC’s spring meetings in Destin. Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese met with the league’s coaches then to try to figure out some solutions.

"We’re a better conference than that," Gators coach Mike White said then. "We just have to get over the hump."

That might have happened this weekend.

The SEC put five teams in the Tournament. Four advanced past the first round and three (Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina) are in the Sweet 16.

Compare the SEC’s 7-2 record to the ACC, which is 7-7. The SEC’s victories also include UF over Virginia and South Carolina over Duke; UNC beat Arkansas.

It’s foolish, of course, to put too much stock in two rounds of basketball at the expense of the previous few months. It’s the equivalent of judging a football league’s success based solely on bowl season. Or saying that the ACC is now a football conference, not a basketball one, because it has the reigning national champion (Clemson) and Heisman Trophy winner (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson). Perhaps it can be both, but that’s a blog for another day.

The point here is that SEC pride has become a talking point in the Tournament.

"I mean, all of us in the SEC understand that we’re carrying a banner that’s a little bigger than just our own schools," Gamecocks coach Frank Martin told reporters Saturday, a day before South Carolina’s 88-81 win over Duke. "We know we’ve got a real good league."

And through the first weekend in the Tournament, the SEC is playing like it.