As the sun rises on Saturday, the unforgettable rush from a fantastic Friday that spilled past midnight remains a delight.
Did that just happen, SEC basketball fans?
Did South Carolina spank Baylor? Did Kentucky overwhelm UCLA? Did Florida edge Wisconsin in one of the wildest, wackiest endings Mother Madness can dream up?
Yes. Yup. Oh, heck yeah.
Rest assured, this was no dream. All of it was real. The SEC went 3-for-3 on Friday with its terrific Sweet 16 trio, a development that should have prompted commissioner Greg Sankey to pop bubbly and buy the nearest lottery ticket. The conference is guaranteed at least one team in the Final Four, with Florida and South Carolina prepared to tango for the third time this season in the East Region final on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
Magic and muscle.
SEC basketball displayed both on its biggest stage of the season and in the largest, lasting moments. It forced the country to recognize that It Just Means More Land doesn’t switch off the lights when football season goes dark.
No matter what happens Sunday, Friday’s pixie dust should hold a special place in SEC lore for a long time.
Where were you when the Gamecock Express grinded up another hapless opponent, this time No. 3 seed Baylor in the grandest arena of them all? What were you doing when No. 7 South Carolina raced to a 15-point halftime lead, then smashed the Bears’ will in the second half during a prolonged victory lap?
Where were you when No. 2 Kentucky pushed back against a game No. 3 UCLA bunch behind De’Aaron Fox’s out-of-body 39-point experience? What were you doing when John Calipari stared down the ghosts of his Memphis past and forced a matchup against No. 1 North Carolina in the South Region final?
Where were you when No. 4 Florida scratched and scrapped its way to an overtime win over No. 8 Wisconsin in the most memorable game of the NCAA Tournament? What were you doing when Chris Chiozza’s prayer of a 3-pointer dropped at the buzzer and hearts throughout Gator Nation were lifted to the stars?
Magic and muscle.
Marvelous madness, indeed.
From here, everything for the SEC is gravy. The league has punched one ticket to dance in Arizona’s desert next week. The East Region final, where so many penciled in Villanova and Duke to take a bite out of the Big Apple, might as well begin with Sankey dropping a mic at midcourt. Or his jaw.
And if Fox continues to breathe fire, why would anyone doubt Kentucky’s chances entering a Blue Blood Battle against North Carolina?
All this is remarkable. Stunning, even. Remember, the SEC entered the Big Dance like a lamb, not a lion. The ACC (nine), Big East (seven), Big Ten (seven) and Big 12 (six) all secured more NCAA Tournament bids than the SEC’s five.
In fact, the SEC was happy with five bids after only earning three last year. Few – if any – conference acolytes could have envisioned three league teams crashing an Elite Eight party. After all, you must walk before you can run.
Turns out, the SEC had us all fooled in this sprint.
Magic and muscle.
Now the biggest question left is this: How long will the carpet ride last?
Wouldn’t it be cool to see Florida and South Carolina stage an epic showdown that tops the Gators’ soul-stopper against Wisconsin? Wouldn’t it be amazing to watch the Wildcats toy with the Tar Heels and spin another Final Four berth under Calipari? Wouldn’t it be a sight to witness the giant SEC showcase continue at college basketball’s Taj Mahal next week?
Anything is possible. Heck, after a frenzied Friday night, SEC basketball has the world by the tail.
That grip seems stronger than ever.