Florida’s path to the Final Four is filled with college basketball blue bloods.
The Gators earned the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed after beating Kentucky 61-60 in the Southeastern Conference championship game Sunday. Coach Billy Donovan’s team, which has won 26 consecutive games, is the top seed for the first time since winning the second of back-to-back national titles in 2007.
“It’s kind of what we expected,” said guard Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC’s player of the year and tournament MVP. “It feels good. Obviously, it doesn’t matter when the games start playing.”
Florida (32-2) will open tournament play Thursday in Orlando, Fla., in the South Region. The Gators will face the winner of Albany (18-14) and Mount St. Mary’s (16-16), two 16 seeds that play Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio.
“We’ve got to stay locked in and not let it get to our heads,” Wilbekin added.
Florida’s road to Dallas could get considerably tougher after that, with No. 2 seed Kansas, No. 3 seed Syracuse and No. 4 seed UCLA all in the South. The Jayhawks, Orange and Bruins have a combined 15 national titles and plenty of experience on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“Anybody in the country can come out and win it,” Florida center Patric Young said.
Kansas (24-9) opens the tournament Friday against 15th-seeded Eastern Kentucky in St. Louis, a relatively short trip for the Jayhawks. Eastern Kentucky (24-9) beat Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference final to earn its eighth NCAA tournament appearance and first since 2007.
Behind star freshman Andrew Wiggins, Kansas captured its 10th straight Big 12 regular-season title but lost to eventual champion Iowa State in the tournament semifinals to dash any hopes of a No. 1 seed. The Jayhawks likely will be without 7-footer Joel Embiid until the tournament’s second weekend. The Big 12 defensive player of the year has a stress fracture in his lower back.
“You obviously worry about winning a two-game tournament,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “You don’t worry about what you could potentially worry about next week. In our regional, you got the best team in the country, a team that four weeks ago was thought to be the best team in the country.
“You have a team in UCLA that’s one of the hottest teams in the country. You could make a case that if everybody in our regional plays to their ceilings, it could be the hardest region of any of them.”
No. 7 New Mexico (27-6) and No. 10 Stanford (21-12) also meet in St. Louis. It’s Stanford’s 17th NCAA berth and first since 2008, shortly before coach Johnny Dawkins was hired from Duke’s staff to replace Trent Johnson.
Last spring, athletic director Bernard Muir said Stanford needed to reach the NCAAs to show progress or Dawkins’ future could be in jeopardy.
“Coach always tells us never pay attention to what’s being said,” senior forward Josh Huestis said. “One thing I’ve really learned about Coach Dawkins is he can stay very focused despite the chaos around him.”
Syracuse (27-5) will face 14th-seeded Western Michigan (23-9) on Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y. The Orange gets a chance to end its late-season fade. Syracuse was 25-0 and No. 1 in the country last month, but lost four of six to close the regular season.
The Broncos (23-9) are in the field for the first time since 2004 after beating Toledo for the Mid-American Conference championship.
No. 6 seed Ohio State (25-9) and 11th-seeded Dayton (23-10) also play in Buffalo.
UCLA (26-8) and 13th-seeded Tulsa (21-12) play Friday in San Diego. The Bruins, in their first season under coach Steve Alford, upset Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament championship game Saturday. Tulsa closed with 11 consecutive wins under second-year coach Danny Manning, a former Kansas star whose alma mater also is in the region.
The Golden Hurricane secured their berth by winning the Conference USA tournament, earning their first NCAA tournament berth since 2003.
San Diego also will host No. 5 seed Virginia Commonwealth and 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks (31-2), who have won 28 in a row, won the Southland Conference tournament and are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009.
VCU (26-8) lost to Saint Joseph’s in the Atlantic 10 championship Sunday. The Rams are making their fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament and have at least one win in each of their first three trips. They advanced to the Final Four in 2011.
Florida has come up just short of the Final Four the last three years, losing to Butler (2011), Louisville (2012) and Michigan (2013) in regional finals.
The senior-laden Gators have had their sights set on the Final Four all year — and now the last leg of the journey begins.
“We’ve still got work to do,” forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “Now we’ve got to start from the bottom and work our way back up.”