By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
NCAA Tournament first weekend review
A record eight teams from the Southeastern Conference made the NCAA Tournament, but only two survived the opening weekend. Kentucky snuck past Davidson, 78-73, in the first round, then stormed past Buffalo, 95-75, in the Round of 32. Buffalo, a No. 13 seed, upset No. 4 Arizona in the first round, which made Kentucky’s path to the Sweet 16 slightly easier.
Despite being a No. 7 seed, Texas A&M made its second Sweet 16 in the last three seasons. The Aggies held off No. 10 Providence, 73-69, in the Round of 64, then met defending national champion North Carolina in the second round. Texas A&M’s size proved to be too much for the Tar Heels, and the Aggies dominated by a score of 86-65.
Alabama’s season came to an end in the Round of 32 with an 81-58 loss to No. 1 seed Villanova. The Crimson Tide only trailed by five points at the half but the Wildcats were blistering hot from beyond the arc in the second half, as they blew the game open within minutes. Alabama advanced to the second round after an 86-83 win over Virginia Tech in the Round of 64 and finished the season at 20-16.
Auburn’s success this season was unexpected. The Ti-gers won the regular season SEC title despite being projected to finish in the bottom half of the conference. It was a disappointing conclusion to the year, however, as Clemson obliterated Auburn, 84-53, in the second round. Shots weren’t falling for the Tigers the first half, and Clemson pulled away before halftime and cruised to an easy victory. Auburn slid past Charleston, 62-58, in the opening round. The Tigers finished the year at 26-8, the best season for the program since 2003.
Auburn and Tennessee were the co-champions in the SEC, but neither team advanced to the Sweet 16. The Volunteers looked terrific in their 73-47 opening round win over Wright State, but UT was upset in the Round of 32 by Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers hit a buzzer-beater to shock the Vols, 63-62, and their season came to an end at 26-9. Had Tennessee advanced, the South regional could have involved an Elite Eight matchup between Kentucky and Tennessee.
After an Elite Eight run in 2017, Florida entered this season with high expectations. The Gators made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed, but it was a season full on inconsistency for Mike White’s team. Florida avoided a first round upset when it defeated St. Bonaventure, 77-62, in the first round and earned a matchup with No. 3 Texas Tech in the second round. The lead toggled back and forth throughout the game, but the Red Raiders eventually prevailed, 69-66. Florida finished the year with a 21-13 record.
The SEC went 6-2 in the first round of the tournament, and the only teams that lost were Missouri and Arkansas. The Tigers lost 67-54 to Florida State, and Cuonzo Martin’s team finished the season at 20-13. Arkansas fell behind 21-2 against Butler but cut the lead to five points by halftime. However, the Bulldogs ran away from the Razorbacks and won, 79-62. Arkansas ended the year with a 23-12 record.
NCAA Tournament second weekend preview
Before the tournament started, it appeared as if the South was the toughest of the four regions. It had the top overall seed in Virginia, while Kentucky and Arizona were each in the top half of the bracket. However, Virginia became the first No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed when UMBC dominated the Cavaliers, 74-54, and Arizona lost to Buffalo. No. 2 seed Cincinnati and No. 3 seed Tennessee were upset in the second round, which left No. 5 Kentucky as the top seed in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats face No. 9 Kansas State in the Sweet 16 in Atlanta. If it wins, Kentucky will meet either No. 7 Nevada or No. 11 Loyola-Chicago. Kentucky now has a clear path to the Final Four, and John Calipari’s team is playing at its best. The Wildcats lost in the Elite Eight a season ago, but this is a team that could easily be playing for a national championship in two weeks.
Entering the season, Texas A&M and Kentucky were projected to be the best two teams in the SEC. The Aggies struggled throughout the first half of conference play but they’re finally playing up to their potential. Up next is a Sweet 16 matchup with No. 3 Michigan, and the Wolve-rines have won 11 straight games. It’s a tough matchup for the Aggies, but this team is talented enough to make the Final Four.
Second weekend predictions
Kentucky defeats Kansas State, 76-68, in the Sweet 16 to advance to the Elite Eight, where the Wildcats will meet Loyola-Chicago. Kentucky will beat the Ramblers, 74-67, to advance to the Final Four for the fifth time in nine years under John Calipari.
Texas A&M loses to Mi-chigan, 73-68, in the Sweet 16 despite holding a lead late in the second half. The Wolverines knock off Gonzaga in the Elite Eight to reach the Final Four, where they will play Kentucky.
On the other side of the bracket, Villanova sneaks past West Virginia, 77-74, while Purdue beats Texas Tech, 74-70. Former Hokes Bluff High standout Isaac Haas fractured his elbow in the Boilermakers’ first round win over Cal State-Fullerton, but the senior center will attempt to play in the Sweet 16 if he can find an NCAA-approved brace. Villanova defeats Purdue, 85-79, to reach the Final Four.
Kansas slides past Clemson, 78-70, while Duke do-minates Syracuse, 62-46. Duke knocks off Kansas, 75-72, in the Elite Eight to set up a battle of No. 1 seeds in the Final Four between the Blue Devils and Villanova.
The SEC sent two teams to the National Invitational Tournament, and one of those squads will be playing in the tournament semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York next week.
Mississippi State earned a No. 4 seed in the NIT and defeated No. 5 Nebraska, 66-59, in the first round. The Bulldogs traveled to Waco in the second round, where they knocked off Baylor, 78-77. In the quarterfinals, Mississippi State dominated Louisville, 79-56, and will face Penn State in the semifinals on Tuesday, March 27.
LSU earned a No. 3 seed in the tournament. In the opening round, the Tigers squared off against in-state rival Louisiana-Lafayette in Baton Rouge. The Ragin’ Cajuns took the Tigers to overtime, but LSU pre-vailed, 84-76, in double overtime. LSU then traveled to take on Utah in the second round, and the Utes easily handled the Tigers, 95-71. LSU finished the season at 18-15 in Will Wade’s first year.