GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Tennessee's Rick Barnes has coached in the Big East, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12. He's made the NCAA Tournament nearly two dozen times and advanced to the Final Four.
He's been around. He's seen it done a number of different ways.
So Barnes has credibility when he raves about his current league, the Southeastern Conference.
"I've said it all year: This league is better than everybody's giving it credit for," Barnes said Tuesday. "It's not like I told you so, but the fact is this basketball league is better. What I'm ecstatic about is we've had to overcome the perception that it wasn't very good, and we've got teams that have gone out and played good basketball."
Long considered a football power, the SEC is showing some basketball promise. The league, which many thought might get just three teams in the NCAA Tournament a few months ago, could have three in the Elite Eight.
Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina play in the Sweet 16 on Friday night. The second-seeded Wildcats (31-5) face No. 3 seed UCLA in Memphis, Tennessee. The fourth-seeded Gators (26-8) take on No. 8 seed Wisconsin in New York City, shortly after the seventh-seeded Gamecocks (24-10) play No. 3 seed Baylor.
The SEC joins three other conferences that have three teams in the Sweet 16 — the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12.
Given how the SEC has performed in the tournament so far, it might be foolish to bet against them.
Kentucky is one of the hottest teams remaining, having won 13 in a row since losing at Florida in early February. The Gators looked as solid as anyone in the first two rounds, beating East Tennessee State and Virginia by a combined 41 points. And the Gamecocks pulled off one of the bracket's biggest upsets by knocking off No. 2 seed Duke in Greenville, South Carolina.
Throw in oh-so-close losses by Arkansas and Vanderbilt, and the SEC has reason to brag.
The Razorbacks rallied from a 17-point deficit to take a 65-60 lead in the final minutes and looked like they would stun top-seeded North Carolina in the second round. But the Tar Heels closed out the game with a 12-0 run that left Arkansas imagining what might have been .
The Commodores had similar thoughts after giving away their NCAA opener against Northwestern. Commodores guard Matthew Fisher-Davis intentionally and inexplicably grabbed Northwestern's Bryant McIntosh despite his team leading by 1. His mistake — Fisher-Davis thought Vandy was down 1 — sent McIntosh to the free-throw line for the go-ahead points with 14.6 seconds left. Vanderbilt lost 68-66.
"Our conference is pretty good," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. "I don't need to keep repeating that. I think anyone with any kind of understanding of basketball can start making those assessments on their own without me having to force feed it down their throats."
The league has come a long way in a short time, especially considering it ranked seventh in conference RPI in 2013.
After landing just three teams in the 2016 NCAA Tournament once again, the SEC hired former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese to bolster the league's basketball profile and postseason presence.
Tranghese's plan started with scheduling games against better competition and winning more of those key, nonconference matchups. The SEC now mandates that nonconference opponents must have a three-year RPI average of 175 or better. That number will drop to 150 in the future.
The SEC also went 5-5 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge after winning just 10 of 30 meetings in the first three years of the inter-conference showcase.
"We don't really get talked about a lot, basketball-wise," Florida forward Devin Robinson said. "They talk a lot of football and things like that. The SEC is a tough league. ... That conference got us ready to play against anybody in different matchups and different types of offenses and different types of defenses, so it just gets us ready for just playing against other opponents."
The league, which has 11 national titles in men's basketball, might have its best days ahead.
Georgia and Mississippi just missed getting into the 68-team field, and with high-profile coaches like Barnes, Ben Howland (Mississippi State), Bruce Pearl (Auburn) and Avery Johnson (Alabama) trying to building sustainable programs, the SEC could be on the verge of a basketball uprising.
"We feel like it's a league that's trending up," Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said. "There's a lot of really, really good veteran coaches in this league, and there's a lot of great talent in this league. Even as we look to the future, there's some great recruiting classes coming in that's going to make the league even better next year."
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, South Carolina, Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.
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