The 2016-17 season is winding down precisely the way everyone said it would, with the SEC dominating the college basketball landscape and the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten all trailing forlornly in the league's long and forbidding shadow.
Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina are all still alive. The Wildcats were supposed to make it this far. The Gators are, at most, a mild surprise. Conversely, the Gamecocks have shocked pretty much everyone except themselves and Frank Martin. Just 1.8 percent of the brackets submitted to the ESPN Tournament Challenge had Martin's team making the regional final.
Give the SEC full credit. The league earned five bids for just the third time in the past nine years. Vanderbilt was likely one self-inflicted error away from taking down Northwestern, Arkansas played top-seeded North Carolina into the 40th minute, and the conference's three remaining members have had to beat the likes of Duke, UCLA, Baylor, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wichita State to get here.
No, the SEC's run through the bracket doesn't necessarily boost its standing in top-to-bottom measures of conference strength. (When LSU and Missouri constitute 14 percent of your membership, you're not going to look very good by such metrics in 2017.) Then again, no one in their right mind cares very much about top-to-bottom measures of conference strength in late March. There will be at least one and quite possibly two SEC teams present at the Final Four. That is conference strength enough, surely.
No. 7 seed South Carolina vs. No. 4 Florida
If you're looking for historical parallels for South Carolina's remarkable three-game streak, you could do worse than UConn in 2011, with just a pinch of the Huskies in 2014. The Gamecocks finished the regular season by losing six of their last nine, kind of like UConn's dropping seven of its last 11 in 2010-11.
During this current NCAA tournament run, Martin's team has alternated amazing offense (ask Duke) with incredible defense (see Baylor), just like Jim Calhoun's team did six years ago. Throw in the fact that South Carolina is a No. 7 seed just like UConn was in 2014, and the picture is complete. None of which guarantees a national title for the Gamecocks, but nine days ago who would have thought we'd even be bringing up the possibility?
The biggest difference between South Carolina during the regular season and the team we now see before us has been scoring on the interior. Somehow a group that converted 44 percent of its tries inside the arc during SEC play is now shooting 54 percent in the tournament. That's mostly PJ Dozier's doing. The sophomore's just 2-of-11 from beyond the arc over the past three games, but he has connected on 63 percent of his 2s. Opposing defenses preoccupied with Chris Silva, Duane Notice and SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell now have to deal with the newly efficient Dozier as well.
If there's a weak link in this defense that Florida can attack, it is simply that South Carolina has allowed its tournament opponents to attempt a good many 3s. Granted, there's some garbage time against Marquette built into these numbers, but the Golden Eagles and Duke both launched a very high number of shots from beyond the arc.
Perhaps the Gators can find an advantage there -- if they hold on to the ball. The Gamecocks have been forcing a high number of turnovers in the tournament, and Mike White's team is good, but by no means great, at taking care of the rock.
KeVaughn Allen rang up 35 points in 37 minutes against Wisconsin, and the sophomore's heroics -- and something of a collapse by Florida in the final minutes of regulation -- set the scene for Chris Chiozza's exquisite buzzer-beater in overtime. With Allen and Devin Robinson, the Gators have two proven scorers who can hit shots from either side of the arc. Throw in Kasey Hill, Justin Leon and Canyon Barry, and this is a versatile and skilled rotation, albeit one that's been slightly undersized since losing John Egbunu to a knee injury.
Lastly, a viewing tip. Don't be fooled if South Carolina is down early. In the tournament so far, the Gamecocks have actually been outscored 57-43 in the first 10 minutes of their three games. From that point on, however, South Carolina has thrashed its opponents 208-147. Watch those last 30 minutes.
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 1 North Carolina
De'Aaron Fox has been the best player in the NCAA tournament so far, and he's North Carolina's problem now.
In a game in which Bam Adebayo scored two points and UCLA shot better than 60 percent on its 2s, Kentucky still won by 11 points quite simply because of Fox. Conventional wisdom says a point guard with no 3-point range to speak of should be easy to guard, but there's nothing conventional about John Calipari's freshman.
Fox had the ball in his hands for more or less the entire game against the Bruins, and in that time he scored 39 points while committing just one turnover. Both numbers were huge. The freshman repeatedly sliced the UCLA defense into ribbons -- whether it was in man-to-man or zone -- on his way to a 13-of-19 shooting performance inside the arc. Fox was helped along, surely, by the presence on the wings of shooters like Malik Monk and Derek Willis, as well as a fellow penetrator like Isaiah Briscoe. Truly, this is a pick-your-poison offense.
Still, the Bruins actually shot better from the field than the Wildcats. What gave UK its advantage in the Sweet 16 was simply an abject refusal to commit turnovers. Indeed, in three tournament games Kentucky has given the ball away just 25 times in 203 offensive possessions. When you end 88 percent of your trips down the floor with a shot of some type, you're going to score a lot of points.
It's a safe bet the number for turnovers will stay fairly low against a Tar Heels defense that emphasizes limiting opponents to one shot. The question then becomes whether Roy Williams' team can stay in front of Fox and keep the ball out of the paint. For opposing defenses this season, that answer has occasionally been "on occasion." It has almost never been "always."
Fortunately for UNC fans, their team also has a few weapons. Against Butler, Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II emerged from their respective shooting slumps, to the tune of a combined 17-of-30 performance from the floor. Moreover, the Tar Heels have continued their season-long specialty of pounding the offensive glass. With Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley leading the way, North Carolina has rebounded 43 percent of its missed shots over the past three games.
Speaking of specialties, watch the fouls, or, more specifically, the free throws. Both of these teams have enjoyed big advantages over their tournament opponents in terms of scoring from the line, and UK actually has been outscored by one point from the field by the last three teams it has faced. Just remember that free throws are easy to make, boring to watch and more crucial than we think.