SEC shows doubts were bit premature

Published April 2, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS - This was supposed to be a down year in the SEC. The teams, insisted the national pundits, were either lacking experience or top-shelf talent.

Yeah, right.

Florida and LSU, both retooled with underclassmen, defied expectations to reach the Final Four. It's the first time the perennially powerful league has had a pair of the semifinalists since 1996 when eventual champ Kentucky and Mississippi State made it to the Meadowlands.

"We were a young league this year," LSU coach John Brady said on the eve of his Tigers' game against Pac-10 champ UCLA late Saturday. "But I thought the league would improve as the season went along, that these young players would develop. ... I think that's what you've seen, particularly with Florida starting four sophomores and LSU starting three freshmen and a sophomore."

With South Carolina defending its NIT title, the SEC entered the weekend with the possibility of having two teams claiming championships. The Gators advanced to the championship game earlier Saturday.

Down year?

Yeah, right.

"It's gratifying," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said. "Everybody kept saying how down we were and we kept saying how young we were. Young becomes mature. People measure success by how deep you go into the (NCAA) Tournament, so this is very gratifying. I don't think people have been talking about us in basketball the way we think they should."

"It seems sometimes that the Southeastern Conference has to almost prove itself every year," Brady echoed. "I love football. I hope our football team wins a national championship and goes undefeated. But sometimes we wrestle with that football image, which I don't have a problem with, but I think what it does sometimes is it makes the league get overlooked."

HURT BUT GAME: UCLA senior center Ryan Hollins, the Most Outstanding Player of the Oakland region who bruised his right knee in practice on Friday, wore an elastic brace but started. Backup sophomore center Lorenzo Mata, who broke his nose for the second time Wednesday, wore a protective mask that didn't seem to bother him. Within a minute of entering with 16:55 left in the opening half, he scored inside and drew a charge. FACES IN THE CROWD: Former UCLA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning attended. A TREND: The Tigers had reached the Final Four three other times and, strangely enough, they did so after losing a standout early to the NBA. DeWayne Scales left after the 1980 season, Jerry Reynolds left after the 1985 season and last year Brandon Bass, the SEC player of the year, bolted.