Remember how the SEC, outside of Florida, was supposed to be the worst major conference in the nation this season? It had just one team ranked in the final polls, but it's having the last laugh with three schools in the Sweet 16. The Pac-12 also was considered down this season, other than Arizona, but has three schools remaining as well. There's value to be found in both conferences heading into the tournament's second week.
Tennessee was one of the last at-large teams in the field and had to play in the First Four, eliminating fellow No. 11 seed Iowa in overtime. The Vols weren't then challenged by either Massachusetts or Mercer, winning those two games by a combined 39 points.
Overall Tennessee has won eight of its past nine games and the only defeat was a close-fought seven-point loss to top-ranked Florida in the SEC Tournament. Now the Vols face Big Ten regular-season champion and No. 2 seed Michigan in Indianapolis on Friday night. The Wolverines opened as 2-point favorites on NCAA basketball odds.
One major flaw that Michigan has, especially after losing big man Mitch McGary early in the season, is rebounding. UM ranked No. 303 in the nation in rebounds as the Wolverines don't have a lot of size. UT ranks 20th in rebounding and has two beasts down low in 6-foot-8, 265-pound upperclassmen Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. They combine for nearly 19 boards themselves. At 6-foot-6, guard Jordan McRae also is going to be tough for Michigan to handle.
Reaching the Final Four from the First Four is not unprecedented. VCU did it as a No. 11 seed in 2011. The Vols and Michigan have one opponent in common: Iowa. Michigan split with the Hawkeyes. The Vols are +400 to win the Midwest Region with Kentucky.
Coach Cal's Kids Are Coming
Speaking of those freshman-laden Wildcats, they are coming of age quickly. No. 8 seed Kentucky beat two solid teams in LSU and Georgia in the SEC Tournament before falling by just a point in the championship game against those Gators. The Cats beat Kansas State 56-49 to open the NCAA Tournament and then knocked off top-seeded and unbeaten Wichita State 78-76 on Sunday. That can only be a huge confidence boost for UK.
Kentucky certainly won't be intimidated by Friday's Sweet 16 opponent, Louisville. UK's only win against a ranked team during the regular season was 73-66 over then-No. 6 Louisville on Dec. 28 in Lexington. That improved John Calipari to 5-1 against Rick Pitino during Calipari's career at Kentucky. Louisville is a 5-point favorite at sportsbooks for this one.
The Wildcats have never advanced past the Sweet 16 as a No. 8 seed or worse, while Pitino is 11-0 in the Sweet 16 in his career. Kentucky would be favored in an Elite Eight matchup against Tennessee. Kentucky beat the Vols in January. Michigan would be at a huge size advantage against the Cats but would be a slight favorite.
Pac-12 South Final?
While the Midwest Region final could be an all-SEC matchup if UK and Tennessee win, so could the South Region be an all-Pac-12 affair should No. 4 UCLA and No. 10 Stanford prove victorious on Thursday night in Memphis.
The Bruins are 4.5-point dogs for sports bettors against Florida. One thing that could be working against Florida is that it has played so few close games this year. For example, only two of its last eight victories have been by less than 10 points. UCLA has won five straight games, including very impressive victories over fellow NCAA Tournament teams Stanford and Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament. Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin haven't put up much of a fight in the Big Dance. UCLA is +365 to win the South. Leading scorer Kyle Anderson will have to play better to upset the Gators, but he's capable of dominating a game.
The Cardinal were squarely on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament after a 25-point loss to UCLA in the conference tournament. They have opened as 2.5-point favorites against No. 11 Dayton. The Flyers have been both lucky and good, beating Ohio State and Syracuse by a combined three points. Dayton also lost to Pac-12 doormat USC back in December. The Flyers may have one advantage: Their coach is Archie Miller, and his older brother is Arizona coach Sean Miller. Think he may pass along some helpful hints about Stanford?Dayton is +900 to win the South Region and the Cardinal +475 on NCAA basketball odds.