No one makes the NCAA Tournament without some key moments happening, so here's one for each team in the field.
For Florida, I'm going to go all the way back to December 10 when the Gators beat Kansas 67-61. It was UF's third game against a well regarded opponent, and it had lost the first two to Wisconsin and UConn. It had started the year in the top ten of the AP Poll, but by then, it had fallen to No. 19. Was this team a true contender or just a nice also-ran?
Turns out: contender. Andrew Wiggins had a brilliant game for KU with 26 and 11, but no other Jayhawks had a good game. Florida went on a 21-0 run in the first half as it showed what its peak potential was. It was an important game for Scottie Wilbekin, who was playing only his third of the year after being suspended for the first five. It was his first really good game too, and he'd take the confidence he got there and ride it to SEC Player of the Year.
For Kentucky I'm also going to go to a big non-conference win, it's defeat of Louisville on December 28. It was UK's fourth game against an opponent ranked at the time of the game, and it had lost the previous three to Michigan State, Baylor, and UNC, respectively. For all the preseason talk about how good this team was going to be and how much potential it had, here was its last chance to get a statement win before conference play began.
UK did get that win, and it was made all the more impressive by the circumstances. Julius Randle had problems with cramps and did not play the whole game, but the Harrison brothers made up for it against the defending national champs. It was a big game at the time made even bigger in hindsight, as Kentucky wouldn't get many chances at a signature win in conference play. It ended up having just three, and it lost all of them. This win over UL was the difference between the Cats being safely in and possibly sweating it out on Sunday.
Finally for Tennessee, I'm not going to complete the pattern and point to its huge non-conference win over Virginia. Instead, I will only go back to March 1. Tennessee's SEC season up to that point had been a mire of inconsistency, and its previous two games—a loss to Texas A&M and a single-digit win over Mississippi State—weren't that impressive. We had no indication that UT was about to go on a key stretch run. March 1 was a game against Vanderbilt, and that was the kind of game the Vols could (and did) lose this year.
Instead, Tennessee unloaded the howitzers and blasted Vandy 76-38. This kind of dominance was something we had seen at times from the team, but never consistently. Here was where the Vols did put it together, as they won their following three games by other impressive scores: 82-54 over Auburn, 72-45 over Missouri, and 59-44 over South Carolina. The run ended with a tight 56-49 loss to Florida, but no SEC teams beat Florida this year. Tennessee made its case for inclusion to the Selection Committee down the stretch, and as we see with the team being in the First Four, it was absolutely necessary to do so.
So those are the big ones for now. We're about to find out if there are more to come.