SEC out to prove it belongs in NCAA tourney talks

The Southeastern Conference is the unquestioned king of college

football these days. Six straight national championships will do

that for you.

On the court, however, the SEC is fighting for respect.

The league hasn’t won a men’s basketball national championship

since Florida’s back-to-back titles in 2006-07, and it has only one

Final Four appearance during that span. Its low point came in 2009,

when only three teams were selected for the NCAA Tournament.

The conference tournament starts Thursday in New Orleans. It’ll

be yet another chance for the rest of the SEC to show that the

league is more than Kentucky and a bunch of other teams.

The No. 1 Wildcats (30-1, 16-0 SEC) completed an undefeated run

through the league with their 74-59 win over No. 22 Florida on

Sunday. They own the conference’s lone Final Four appearance since

2007, reaching the national semifinals last season before falling

to eventual national champion Connecticut.

Kentucky coach John Calipari joined the SEC following the 2009

season when Mississippi State, Tennessee and LSU were the only

teams selected to the NCAA Tournament and finished a combined 1-3.

The Tigers were the highest seed of the group, a No. 8, and lost to

top-seeded North Carolina in the second round.

Calipari is 40-8 in the SEC’s regular season with the Wildcats,

but he bristles at the mention of the league’s recent struggles and

perception as a football-only conference. He believes the SEC has

”five or six” teams capable of reaching the second weekend of

play in this season’s NCAA Tournament, and that ”no one” will

want to play teams such as the Gators, Vanderbilt and others come

tournament time.

”I mean, yeah, we’d like to win national titles, but that’s …

When you’re talking a one-and-done format, it’s hard,” Calipari

said. ”Because there’s luck and fate and all kinds of things

involved.

”… This is a strong, strong league.”

The perception of the SEC as a second-tier league has had a

direct impact on its NCAA tournament selections in recent years.

Last season, Alabama won the West Division and had a 21-11 overall

record following a loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament, 12-4 in

the league’s regular season.

The Crimson Tide’s resume, however, wasn’t enough to earn an

NCAA selection as the SEC was left with five teams in the

field.

In order to generate more discussion about SEC teams in the NCAA

field, the conference changed its setup after last season. It

eliminated the two-division format that had been in place since the

1992 expansion that brought South Carolina and Arkansas to the

table, leaving a singular 12-team league.

How much impact the change has had on the league’s NCAA chances

will be seen for sure when the tournament field is announced on

Sunday. For now, some of the league coaches are taking a

wait-and-see approach.

Calipari, though, believes the change was the right decision. He

also wants to keep the single-league format when the SEC expands

next season with Texas A&M and Missouri – and during any other

future expansions.

”You’re doing this to try and get 7, 8, 9 teams into the NCAA

Tournament with a few of those that really have a chance to win

that national title,” Calipari said. ”If you do it every year,

you’ve got your chances now.”

Had the two-division setup still been in place this season, the

top four SEC teams (Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt and Tennessee)

would have come from the former East Division.

Alabama, which finished fifth, would have once again won the

former West Division with its 20-10 overall record, 9-7 in the SEC.

Mississippi State (21-10, 8-8) finished sixth, followed by Ole Miss

(18-12, 8-8) and LSU (17-13, 7-9).

”I think our league is very strong,” Crimson Tide coach

Anthony Grant said. ”I think it’s one of the better leagues in the

country.”

Grant believes six SEC teams should earn NCAA tournament

selections this season, which would be the league’s most since

sending that many teams in 2008. That season, the SEC finished 4-6

and sent only one team (Tennessee) to the second weekend.

Of the five SEC teams that made the tournament last season, only

two (Kentucky and Florida) won games. The others (Vanderbilt,

Tennessee and Georgia) each lost in the first round, but the league

finished with a 7-5 overall record thanks to the Wildcats’ Final

Four appearance and the Gators reaching the regional finals before

losing to Butler.

Volunteers coach Cuonzo Martin joined the SEC this season after

being hired away from mid-major Missouri State. Martin said he

looked at the SEC as a ”league that just scored a lot” before

joining Tennessee.

Martin’s view has changed after his first time through the

league, comparing its quality to that of the Big Ten.

”I think they’re very similar from the standpoint that you have

to be ready, you have to game plan, you have to scheme, you have to

understand what’s going on because these teams actually do their

homework and take away your strengths and you have to find ways to

make plays,” Martin said.

Martin’s Missouri State team last season finished the season

with an RPI in the 30s but wasn’t selected to the NCAA Tournament

after failing to win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.

Martin now finds himself on the other side of the mid-major vs.

major conference debate, with Tennessee (18-13, 10-6) having won

eight of nine and making a strong case for a tournament spot.

”I like this situation here a lot better because of the fact of

where we’re coming from and where we are,” Martin said. ”I like

to think we’re an NCAA tournament team now, but as a coach I’m

happy to see our guys getting better and see them having fun

playing basketball with a smile on their face.”

Arkansas (18-13, 6-10) has played itself off the NCAA bubble in

recent weeks under first-year coach Mike Anderson, losing five of

its last six. The Razorbacks’ skid, though, has only added to the

respect Anderson, a former assistant in the SEC at Arkansas, has

for the league in his first season back in the league after leaving

Missouri.

Still, he understands the wait-and-see approach of those on the

outside.

”I think you see a resurgence,” Anderson said. ”I think you

can see that, even on a national scene.

”… But when you get the opportunity to go into the NCAA

tournament, then I think that’s when you’ve got to make your

mark.”

Ole Miss is another of team that was on the edge of the NCAAs,

having finished seventh in the unified league. Rebels coach Andy

Kennedy said Kentucky’s traditional and recent dominance of the

league has been good for the SEC’s national image and

recognition.

He said the league’s football success, however, has put

additional pressure on the basketball side of things.

”Because of the success of football in this league, people want

to say basketball hasn’t met that standard of five, six national

championships in a row,” Kennedy said. ”Which is kind of

unrealistic, because no league has met that standard.

”So, you have the tendency to say the league is down, which is

a misperception.”

Despite all the internal claims about the SEC’s quality this

season, the fact is only two of the league’s teams are ranked

heading into the conference tournament.

How many teams deserve NCAA spots is a matter of debate for the

tournament’s selection committee, with the answer coming on Sunday.

Until more are consistently ranked, that debate will likely

continue.

”We all go through cycles as programs and leagues,” Kennedy

said. ”I know this year SEC basketball, at least from my

perspective, and I’ve been here six years, is the best top to

bottom that it has ever been.”

AP Sports Writers Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., John Zenor in

Tuscaloosa, Ala., and David Brandt in Oxford, Miss., contributed to

this report.