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The SEC is 7-0 in the NCAA tournament, but that shouldn’t change the perception of the league

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The SEC was the laughing stock of college basketball for much of the season.

They’re a power conference, one of the five left after the Big East broke up, yet they only managed to get three of their 14 members into the NCAA tournament. That’s half as many bid as the Atlantic 10 received.

And yet, as we enter the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, the SEC has yet to lose a game. They are 7-0 in the NCAA tournament, with No. 1 Florida, No. 8 Kentucky and No. 11 Tennessee all reaching the Sweet 16.

Good for them.

Seriously.

If reaching the Sweet 16 was an easy thing to do, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bill Self and Jim Boeheim would not have been sent home already, and the fact that Cuonzo Martin was able to make it through from the First Four and John Calipari was able to hand Wichita State their first loss of the season only reinforces that notion.

But it does not change the fact that the SEC was not a good basketball league this season.

Florida is the No. 1 team in the country, the No. 1 seed in the South and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. They are supposed to be in the Sweet 16. In fact, they are supposed to be in the Final Four. Making it this far is not an accomplishment for the Gators, it’s a necessary step.

The same should have been said for Kentucky, but it took them more than four months to finally play like the team that entered the year as the preseason No. 1 team in the country. The fact that this is being lauded as an accomplishment for the Wildcats just goes to show you how underwhelming they were during the regular season.

The fact that Tennessee made it this far is the one impressive achievement the SEC has made to date in this tournament. You can critique who they beat if you’d like too — No. 11 Iowa, No. 6 UMass and No. 14 Mercer is not exactly a murderer’s row — but they won three games in five days against quality competition. No matter how you slice it, that’s commendable, and it should go down as proof that the SEC actually had a third good team in the league all along.

So let’s do the math.

The SEC had one national title contender that played like a national title contender. They had another national title contender that lost to South Carolina on March 1st. They had another good team that laid dormant until the month of March.

That’s three … of the 14 teams in the league.

It doesn’t change the fact that more SEC teams were ranked outside KenPom’s top 100 (five) than were ranked in his top 50 (three). It doesn’t change the fact that the team that finished tied for second in the conference (Georgia) lost to Davidson and Temple. LSU, who was supposed to be in contention for a tournament bid this season, lost to Rhode Island. Texas A&M got picked off by North Texas and Missouri State. South Carolina, who, again, beat Kentucky this month, lost to USC-Upstate. Auburn lost to Northwestern State. Alabama lost to Drexel and South Florida. Mississippi State lost to Utah State and TCU.

Should I keep going?

The bottom-line is this: entering the season, we expected the SEC to be a bit top-heavy. Florida and Kentucky were in the preseason top ten, Tennessee was in the preseason top 25, Missouri and LSU were expected to be tournament teams and everyone else was, well, everyone else.

What we have at the end of the season is Florida as a title contender, a disappointing Kentucky team as a sleeper Final Four pick, Tennessee in the Sweet 16 after playing in the First Four and four NIT teams from the conference losing in the second round of that tournament.

The SEC has some good teams at the top of the conference, and they’re playing well this month.

That doesn’t mean that the rest of league is better by association.

Only getting three teams into the Big Dance says a lot more than getting all three of those teams into the Sweet 16.

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.