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SEC gets last laugh in NCAA Tournament

By Matt Murschel, Orlando Sentinel • Updated Mar 30, 2014 at 8:35 PM

(MCT) – “Two SEC basketball teams walk into the Final Four ..."

Wait, is this a joke? No, but it's the Southeastern Conference that's no longer the laughingstock of the college basketball world, with Florida and Kentucky both heading to Texas for the Final Four. Sure, the top-seeded Gators were expected to wind up in Arlington, but no one north of the Mason-Dixon Line could have ever imagined two SEC teams would wind up competing for a national championship.

But that's what we have with Florida and Kentucky on opposite sides of the NCAA tournament bracket.

It would somehow be fitting if the national championship game was an all-SEC affair. Can you think of a better way for a conference _ dogged throughout the season for its overall quality of play _ to quiet those critics? It's like hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

"When you look at a league, it's very, very unfair to pin a league based on what happens in November and December," Florida's Billy Donovan said before his team competed in the Sweet 16. "In a lot of ways what you're saying is you're not really where you need to be, have these games helped you get better, have they helped you improve, have they prepared you for the next step, and 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."

Certainly for a conference known for dominating the college football landscape for close to a decade, the SEC now finds itself performing their own version of One Shining Moment. The path began with the Sweet 16, featuring three teams – Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee – from the SEC. The league tied the Big Ten for the most teams in the Regional Finals.

Florida entered the tournament as the overall favorite despite questions about the toughness of its conference schedule. Forget the fact that the Gators have now won 30 straight games or they featured one of the most experienced rosters in the tournament. UF advancing to three straight Elite Eights should count for something, right?

In the case of Tennessee, the Volunteers went from being a bubble team to playing for their tournament lives in the play-in game to winding up in the Sweet 16. If not for a questionable call in the final seconds of a loss to Michigan, the Vols might have been facing fellow SEC team Kentucky Sunday in Indianapolis.

What once seemed a detriment now appears to be the reason Kentucky finds itself in the Final Four. A lineup featuring five freshman starters, who at times infuriated and confounded head coach John Calipari, is now playing some of the best basketball in the tournament. It's the reason the Wildcats survived one of the most difficult regions of the tournament, including a matchup against top-seed Wichita State, a tough win over in-state rival Louisville and a 75-72 victory over No. 2 Michigan Sunday.

"We grew up," Calipari said after beating Louisville 74-69 Friday night. "We have 18€', 19-year-olds that were counted out and ridiculed and crushed and can't play, not any good, bad guys. ... you've got a bunch of good guys up here that have stuck together through all the barrage, never let it affect them together."

And now Kentucky and Florida find themselves in the Final Four.

I guess we know who's having the last laugh.

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