The SEC is neither great nor terrible, and nothing that happens in the Final Four can do anything to change that.
As is commonplace in major college sports, the final weekend of the NCAA tournament will undoubtedly turn into a referendum on conference strength. It isn't enough for fans of individual teams to fight each other; it's instead necessary for entire regions or subsets of regions to bicker in groups. This is what happens especially when, after a regular season universally perceived as bad from near-top to bottom, the SEC lands a surprise 11 seed in the Sweet 16, then takes two of the four spots in the national semifinals in Arlington, Texas on Saturday, leaving us two wins away from an all-SEC national championship game in basketball just three months after the league's football championship streak finally ended at seven.
The only geographic region left in the cold is the Pac-12-led West, as Wisconsin brings the Big Ten and the Midwest into the fold, seeking its first championship since Michigan State in 2000 despite its golden era of hoops, and Connecticut carries the flag for the old Big East, the northeast and the somewhat maligned new American Athletic Conference. Oddly enough, everything has already run through top overall seed Florida: While the Gators have taken care of the conference-rival Wildcats three times since Feb. 15, who have their only losses come against? Wisconsin and Connecticut in non-conference play.
Now, the ultimate in bragging rights will be decided, and while Florida has lost to both of the non-SEC teams remaining, the odds are in the league's favor.
No. 1 seed, South
How the Gators got here: There really hasn't been much doubt for one of the most experienced teams in the sport. While far from flawless -- even the opener against Albany was unsettling for a while -- they've won every tournament game by at least 10, taking down the Great Danes, an underrated Pitt in a runaway, Pac-12 champion UCLA and Elite Eight underdog Dayton to get to the Final Four. Florida caught a break when Kansas fell to Dayton, as it's possible the Jayhawks could have been at full strength with Joel Embiid in the regionals, but ultimately a big part of the single-elimination format of the tournament is matchups. Overall, Florida has both benefited from a favorable regional final, but also has done more than enough to prove it deserved the top overall seed in the bracket. Now, the Gators are the only No. 1 seed left standing.
Best Player: Senior guard Scottie Wilbekin won SEC player of the year for a reason. While he's had more than his share of troubles with two suspensions, including one that cost him the first five games of this season, he's put it all together this season, averaging a career-high 13.4 points per game with a knack for hitting big shots.
Biggest Strength: The Gators are easily the best defensive team left in the tournament. They rank No. 1 in kenpom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency, they give up 0.91 points per possession and they have one of the nation's best interior defenders in 6-foot-9 forward/linebacker Patric Young. In four tournament games, opponents have shot a miserable 39.7 percent from the field.
Biggest Weakness: Well … it's hard to find faults with a team that's been so consistently dominant and so balanced. The Gators are also in the top 20 (18th) in kenpom.com's adjusted offensive efficiency, so let's just say they do lack some size underneath, aside from Young. Only three members of Florida's rotation check in at more than 6-foot-6, so the Gators can't afford foul trouble for Young.
X-Factor: Former Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith gives the Gators an intriguing 6-foot-8 threat as the first man off the bench, but he's been inconsistent as a scorer in his one year in a Florida uniform. Against Dayton, he went 0-for-4 from the field, including 0-for-3 from three-point range, but he did at least grab nine rebounds and go 5-for-6 at the free-throw line. At his best, he gives Florida an intriguing blend of size and versatility.
No. 8 seed, Midwest
How the Wildcats got here: The preseason No. 1 team may end up finishing right back where it started, despite dropping out of the top 25 by the end of the season. Everyone knew Kentucky was loaded with talent, after signing one of the best recruiting classes in college basketball history. It was a matter of a bunch of freshman pulling themselves together as a more consistent, mature and cohesive unit, and that's finally happened, making Kentucky into the world's greatest No. 8 seed. We saw it in the second half of the SEC title game loss against Florida, and now we've seen it in an incredible run through the Region of Doom, as the Wildcats beat Kansas State, undefeated Wichita State and two of last year's Final Four -- popular tournament favorite Louisville and impossibly good shooting Michigan -- to get to this year's Final Four. Yes, the Wildcats have come a long, long way since 1) losing to Robert Morris in the NIT and 2) plummeting from the top of the polls to a 22-9 regular-season record.
Best Player: It's not difficult to see why freshman power forward Julius Randle is coveted by the NBA and will be a top-five pick. While an inconsistent shooter, Randle has recorded double-doubles in all four tournament games, showing nearly unmatched intensity as a physical force in the paint. Now he gets to head home to Dallas for the Final Four.
Biggest Strength: Well, for one, we know the Wildcats have greater raw talent and upside than anyone else in the field. This is an all-time great collection of talent; it just happens to be a young collection of talent featuring stars who will be on campus for only one year. Fueled by Randle, Kentucky also leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, according to kenpom.com, and finished with 17 offensive rebounds compared to Michigan's 10 defensive rebounds in the Midwest regional final.
Biggest Weakness: It still has to be youth, especially given the uncertain status of sophomore seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who sat out against Michigan with an injured ankle. Cauley-Stein is old by Kentucky standards, at least, and his absence leaves Kentucky without a key interior defender. The Wildcats again started five freshmen against Michigan -- Randle, the Harrison twins, James Young and Dakari Johnson -- and the good news is Johnson has already asserted himself as a capable seven-footer anyway, taking Cauley-Stein's job in February. There's just never a shortage of talent here.
X-Factor: Apparently it's Marcus Lee, who came from nowhere to score 10 points and haul in seven offensive rebounds in 15 minutes in the absence of Cauley-Stein. Ordinarily, such contributions from a five-star recruit wouldn't be surprising or considered coming from nowhere. But the 6-foot-9 freshman has been a nonfactor most of the year and hasn't scored since Feb. 22 or have multiple rebounds since Dec. 21.
No. 2 seed, West
How the Badgers got here: After years and years of success, Bo Ryan finally finds himself in the Final Four. Since taking over the Wisconsin job in 2001-02, Ryan has guided the Badgers to the tournament every season, but they've never made it past the regional final -- where they'd also been only once under Ryan's tenure. The Badgers opened this season 16-0, including wins over Florida and Virginia, then briefly fell off a cliff by losing five of six games in the middle of Big Ten play, and now have rebounded to take down American by 40, Oregon by eight, Baylor by 17 and No. 1 seed Arizona in a 64-63 overtime thriller.
Best Player: Few players are capable of presenting matchup problems like Frank Kaminsky. The junior seven-footer has broken out as a star, scoring 28 against Arizona's acclaimed defense, highlighted by three three-pointers. For good measure, he also totaled 11 rebounds. Kaminsky also had 28 in the Big Ten tournament against Michigan State, and 43 in an early-season win over North Dakota. Not bad for a guy who averaged 1.8 points per game as a freshman and 4.2 as a sophomore.
Biggest Strength: Bo Ryan is known for his methodical, slow-it-down Big Ten style, but this might be the best offense he's had in Madison. The Badgers rank third nationally in kenpom.com's adjusted offensive efficiency and second in turnover percentage, rarely wasting the limited possessions their style of play gets them every game.
Biggest Weakness: Kaminsky's versatility has made Wisconsin into the Final Four team it has become, but the Badgers can be beaten on the interior defensively. It's also not all that surprising considering they're perimeter-oriented lineup, but a guy like Julius Randle could certainly cause problems.
X-Factor: The shooting of guard Traevon Jackson can be erratic, and that was the case against Arizona's stingy defense in the Elite Eight, when he took a season-high 14 shots and made only four. Wisconsin is better off with Jackson acting more as a distributor, especially given the inside-outside emergence of Kaminsky, although it'll happily take him at the free-throw line, where he's hit 17 of 19 in the NCAA tournament.
No. 7 seed, East
How the Huskies got here: They swept the tournament's Philly schools, St. Joe's and Villanova, then recaptured the old Big East magic and took down No. 3 seed Iowa State and tournament frontrunner Michigan State in a pair of pseudo home games at Madison Square Garden. While Shabazz Napier has been phenomenal, he's gotten much-needed help from Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels to put the Huskies on this unlikely path to the Final Four a year after NCAA issues forced them to stay home.
Best Player: The most obvious choice in the Final Four. Napier has a knack for coming up big in the biggest of moments, including his game-winning shot to take down Florida in December. The 6-foot-1 senior can play the point and off the ball, and he leads the team in scoring, assists, steals and rebounds. He's hit four three-pointers in three straight games, scoring 25 to lead the Huskies over Michigan State in the East regional final.
Biggest Strength: Few teams boast a better combination of three-point and free-throw shooting. The Huskies have made a ridiculous 55 of 60 free-throw attempts in four NCAA tournament games, including a 21-for-22 effort against the Spartans. While they struggled from the outside in that game and can be streaky, they are also capable of putting on a three-point clinic behind Napier, Boatright, Niels Giffey and the versatile Daniels.
Biggest Weakness: Daniels gives the Huskies a talented inside-outside threat, but otherwise they're not particularly strong underneath, offensively. As a team they were fantastic defensively on the interior against Michigan State, but centers Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah scored a total of eight points in the two games at the Garden. Of course, it won't matter much if they continue to get such great guard play.
X-Factor: Niels Giffey's is the American Athletic Conference's best three-point shooter at 52.5 percent in the regular season, but the 6-foot-7 senior wing from Germany has seen his shot go flat in the tournament, making only one of his nine attempts in the last three games. UConn has obviously proven to be a dangerous team, and that's without getting much offense from its three-point specialist.