Tuesday night at the University of Florida's O'Connell Center produced the kind of college basketball game that terrifically teases the senses for March Madness.
That's not to say the Gators' 67-61 victory over Kansas automatically will be repeated should two of this season's seven or eight best programs meet again in the NCAA tournament. It's not even to assume that both UF and KU will so much as reach the Elite Eight. There is an insanely deep pool of talented teams out there this winter, as many as 16 to 18 of them capable of reaching regional finals, with half of those legitimate Final Four threats.
But the Gators and Jayhawks are arguably two of the deepest and most talented of those, blessed with size, depth and experience. And that's with Florida having yet to welcome superb freshman Chris Walker to the team, assuming he finally has his academic house in order.
How good is Walker? He's a long-armed, 6-foot-10 scoring machine who can dunk and drop 3-pointers with equal aplomb. Think a somewhat less disciplined and polished but slightly larger Kevin Durant and you have some idea of the potential power of Walker.
And the fact that Arizona, defending national champ Louisville, Syracuse, Michigan State, Iowa State, North Carolina, Duke and preseason No. 1 Kentucky may all be as good or better than these two by tournament time could make this journey through the tourney the best in decades.
Sadly, the Big Dance is almost certain not to include our town's University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs. At least not unless they can make do on the mantra of former coach John Shulman, who repeatedly maintained, "Nothing matters but three [or four] days in March."
On one sense, of course, he was right, for almost every low- to mid-major conference such as UTC's Southern is pretty much restricted to one bid, which always goes to the conference tourney champ. But there should also be joy and satisfaction derived from the seasonlong chase of that title, of the daily small steps made toward improvement.
It was tough to watch first-year coach Will Wade's team fall behind an average Georgia team by a 54-17 score early in last week's second half and recall how the Mocs had rocked the Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament 16 years earlier. Neither UGA nor UTC is anywhere near the level both programs were at that time, but the Mocs obviously have fallen much further.
To watch UTC against Georgia was to wonder if Wade's "Chaos" defensive strategy doesn't just as accurately describe the atmosphere surrounding the program he took over.
That said, Wade and his staff no doubt will do wonderful work at UTC sooner than later, just maybe not this year, at least not before 2013 turns to 2014. These guys are short on major college talent, height and passion, and while Wade can possibly instill the latter, the first two must basically come from recruiting and his recruits won't be on campus until next summer.
Yet just because the Mocs are mediocre to morose -- depending on which night you watch them -- a month of games throughout the country strongly hints that this could be the most special March in recent memory, certain since Kansas won it all in 2008, the only year all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four.
So who looks best at this moment?
Let's break it down into four groups of four.
The first is the four most likely to reach Jerry's World in Dallas for the sport's final weekend. For the moment, let's make those Arizona, Florida, Louisville and Kansas, assuming KU freshman Andrew Wiggins begins to play more like an Alpha dog than a lap dog.
Second four: Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Kentucky.
Third four: North Carolina (if super shooter P.J. Hairston regains his eligibility), Duke, Ohio State and UConn.
Fourth four: Wichita State (which hosts Tennessee on Saturday), Baylor, Villanova and Michigan.
So who should win it on this 11th day of December?
Assuming Walker indeed joins Florida, expect the Gators to meet the Jayhawks for a second time in the national title game, those two teams outlasting Louisville and Iowa State in the semis. And just like Tuesday at the O-Dome, expect the slightly deeper and more experienced Gators to prevail, delivering UF coach Billy Donovan his third national title and the SEC its seventh since 1994, the most of any conference in that time span.
Maybe then someone, including its own fans, will finally recognize it for something more than a football conference.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.