GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It’s hard to mock Southeastern Conference basketball right now.
Panned for early season losses and relatively weak non-conference schedules, the league has three teams still playing in the NCAA tournament. Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee -- the only SEC squads to make the 68-team field -- all advanced to the Sweet 16 over the weekend, giving the SEC a perfect 7-0 mark in college basketball’s premier event.
"I’m sure some people are pretty surprised at three SEC teams, because all I heard all year was that the SEC was in a down year and it was a weak SEC," Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin said Monday. "It’s pretty cool to see three SEC teams in the Sweet 16."
The Gators (34-2), the tournament’s overall top seed, will play fourth-seeded UCLA in the South Region on Thursday night in Memphis, Tenn. No. 8 seed Kentucky (26-10), which handed Wichita State its only loss of the season Sunday, advanced to face fourth-seeded Louisville on Friday night in the Midwest Region. No. 11 Tennessee (24-12), which already has three tournament wins since opening play in the First Four, will join the Wildcats in Indianapolis and play Michigan.
Only two other conferences -- the Pac-12 and the Big Ten -- landed three teams in the round of 16. Both of those leagues were ranked in the top three in conference RPI.
The SEC, meanwhile, ranked seventh, just ahead of the American Athletic Conference.
Florida coach Billy Donovan blamed early season struggles for the widespread perception that the league was down.
"It’s very, very unfair to pin a league based on what happens in November and December," Donovan said Monday. "In a lot of ways, maybe some of the losses that our league took in November and December prepared them to be better in our league. I think our league can play with any league in the country.
"But I would say this: Just because certain league teams get knocked out early doesn’t mean the league is overrated. And because a league really, really advances in the tournament doesn’t mean the league is great. I just get upset when all of a sudden everybody just throws out and makes assumptions or draws conclusions of a league being good or bad based on what’s happened in the non-conference. That to me is, I think, somewhat unfair."
There were plenty of eye-opening losses early.
Texas-El Paso upset Tennessee. Drexel beat Alabama. Northwestern State defeated Auburn. Davidson surprised Georgia. Massachusetts and Rhode Island topped LSU. Utah State knocked off Mississippi State. Missouri State stunned Texas A&M. And USC Upstate shocked South Carolina.
There also were setbacks in more high-profile matchups: Michigan State and Baylor beat Kentucky. Connecticut and Wisconsin defeated Florida. Texas, Providence, Butler and Saint Louis knocked off Vanderbilt.
So the SEC was down before its teams even started beating each other up.
It surely didn’t help the league’s image when Florida, which isn’t close to being Donovan’s most talented team, swept the regular season and the tournament. The Gators finished 18-0 in the regular season, becoming the first from a major conference to accomplish the feat since Indiana in 1976, and then beat Kentucky for the third time to win the tournament.
"When you have a stage and a platform and you’re on television, you’re allowed to say what you want to say," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I think sometimes perception becomes a reality. It’s a very tough league, a very talented league. You’ve got the No. 1 team in all of college basketball in the SEC. You have the winningest college program in the SEC, in Kentucky.
"I don’t think the criticism is accurate. But the teams that are in the tournament, they won it because they’re good teams."
It might not just be the teams in the tournament, either.
Entering Monday games, the SEC was 12-2 in postseason play thanks in part to wins by Georgia, Missouri, LSU and Arkansas in the NIT and Texas A&M in the College Basketball Invitational.
Of course, those victories hardly compare to what Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee have done.
"If everybody in the SEC was out of the tournament, they’d say, ‘See, I told you the league is no good,"’ Donovan said. "Now we’ve got some teams advancing, ‘Wow, the league must be really, really underrated.’ Sometimes it has to do with matchups, sometimes it has to do with who you’re playing against. Sometimes it has to do with how well you’re playing. There’s a lot of variables that go into winning in postseason."