By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Seven teams from the Southeastern Conference made the NCAA Tournament, and four of the seven schools advanced to the Sweet 16.
Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU and Auburn are all playing this weekend for a chance to make the Elite Eight and possibly a Final Four. Florida also won its first-round game, and the league boasts an impressed 9-3 record in the first weekend of the tournament.
Kentucky entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed and easily handled No. 15 Abilene Christian in the first round. The Wildcats then snuck past No. 7 Wofford in the second round. UK won both games without forward P.J. Washington, who arguably is the most valuable player for John Calipari’s squad.
Tennessee also earned a No. 2 seed and narrowly avoided two upsets to reach the Sweet 16. No. 15 Colgate had a lead on the Volunteers in the second half but Tennessee pulled away late. Against Iowa in round two, UT blew a 25-point lead and nearly lost. The Hawkeyes forced overtime but Tennessee took control in the extra session.
LSU’s path to the Sweet was similar to that Tennessee, as the Tigers also displayed a flair for the dramatic. LSU handled No. 14 Yale in round one, though the Bulldogs nearly came back and won late. In the second round, LSU held a steady lead over Maryland for most of the game but the Terrapins came back and took the league late. However, Tremont Waters hit a game-winning layup to give the Tigers a 69-67 victory.
For the first time since 2003, Auburn earned a spot in the Sweet 16. The Tigers didn’t make it easy on themselves. In the opening round, AU took on 30-win New Mexico State. Auburn built a 12-point second half lead but the Aggies stormed back and drew within two points late. New Mexico State had a chance to take the lead after Bryce Brown fouled a 3-point shooter with less than three seconds remaining, but Terrell Brown missed two of the three free throws and Auburn held on for a 78-77 win. In the second round, the Tigers hit 13 three-pointers and forced 16 turnovers en route to an 89-75 rout of Kansas. The Jayhawks were never close as Auburn built a 51-25 halftime lead. Brown scored 25 points and Jared Harper added 18 for the Tigers.
Before losing to Michigan in the second round, Florida knocked off Nevada, 70-61, in an upset. The Gators finished the year 20-16, and it was the third straight season they have advanced in the NCAA Tournament. The only two SEC schools to lose in the first round were Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Ben Howland’s team was upset by Liberty, 80-76, in the opening round, and the Bulldogs finished the year 23-11. The Rebels were dominated by Oklahoma, 95-72. Kermit Davis led Ole Miss to a 20-13 record in his first season and earned Coach of the Year honors for his turnaround of the program.
NCAA Tournament Weekend 2 Preview
Only the ACC placed more teams in the Sweet 16 than the SEC. Kentucky faces Houston in the Midwest Region, while Tennessee takes on Purdue in another No. 2/No. 3 matchup in the South. LSU faces No. 2 Michigan State in the East, while Auburn plays No. 1 North Carolina in the Midwest.
It’s unclear whether P.J. Washington will be ready for the Wildcats when they play Houston. They can win without him, but his absence certainly makes things more challenging. Kentucky’s backcourt is made up of freshmen who are up against a veteran Cougar backcourt. The Wildcats will rely on senior Reid Travis to anchor them in the post. Kentucky is a three-point favorite over Houston in Kansas City.
Tennessee is a two-point favorite against Purdue in Louisville. Rick Barnes is searching for his fourth Elite Eight appearance and first in over a decade. Purdue’s Matt Painter is looking for his first Elite Eight appearance, though his Boi-lermakers have made three straight Sweet 16s. Two of the best players in the country are squaring off in Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards. Williams and Admiral Schofield have led the Vols the last two seasons, while Edwards scored 42 points in Purdue’s second round win over Villanova.
Despite being without head coach Will Wade, LSU is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006. The Tigers also made the Final Four that season, and interim head coach Tony Benford is hoping to recreate that magical run. While the Tigers are very talented, they will likely have to go through two of the best coaches and teams in college basketball. First, LSU takes on Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the Sweet 16. If the Tigers win that game, they will likely face No. 1 Duke and Mike Krzyzewski, who is the all-time leader in wins in college basketball history. So, it’s not exactly an easy path for LSU in Washington, D.C. The Tigers are a 6-point underdog against the Spartans.
The only team in the Sweet 16 with a lower seed than No. 5 Auburn is No. 12 Oregon. However, it should not surprise anyone that Bruce Pearl’s team is playing for a berth in the Elite Eight. The Tigers have won 10 straight games, including blowout wins over Tennessee and Kansas. They peaked at exactly the right time and are a veteran team oozing with confidence. Jared Harper and Bryce Brown might be the best backcourt remaining in the tournament, while sophomore forward Chuma Okeke is blossoming into a star. North Carolina presents a challenge for Auburn in a variety of ways, including how well the Tar Heels rebound. UNC plays at a frenetic pace, averaging over 74 possessions per game. Auburn averages about 68 and needs to continue forcing a bevy of turnovers for the Tigers to win. It’s a tall order for Auburn, as the Tigers are searching for their second Elite Eight appearance in school history. North Carolina is a 5-point favorite over Auburn.
SEC coaching carousel
Four SEC schools parted ways with their head coaches in the offseason. Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Alabama decided to move on after disappointing seasons. So far, Alabama is the only one to land a new head coach. Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne hired University of Buffalo head coach Nate Oats to replace Avery Johnson. Oats, 44, led the Bulls to a second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament while winning 32 games and a MAC championship. During his four seasons in upstate New York, Oats compiled a 96-43 overall record, and led the Bulls to three NCAA Tournament appearances, three conference tournament titles and two regular season championships. He also won two games in the tournament and he guided Buffalo to a No. 6 seed this season.