Most observers without a rooting interest predict the SEC will have three teams in the NCAA tournament – Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida – and maybe a fourth if Alabama or Mississippi State up their games. Beyond that, the conference is teetering on either having one of the last, inevitably controversial, picks or being the darlings of the NIT.
But don’t tell that to the SEC coaches who still have a couple weeks worth of games before tournament time. They believe the SEC is as strong any conference in the country, even if the tournament committee greets the conference with yawns and shrugs.
“The league is definitely stronger, and you can tell that from the fact that there aren’t a lot of games separating us,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan. “Other than Kentucky, which is undefeated, all of us are within a game or two of each other. So, certainly there are more than three teams that deserve to be in this tournament.”
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Vandy’s Kevin Stallings agreed, saying he would be shocked if only three teams made the tournament.
“There is a lot of basketball to be played,” Stallings said. “Some of these six-(conference)-loss teams could end up 10-6, so you just never know what can happen with this many games left.”
What is likely to happen is that Kentucky will continue to distance itself from the rest of the SEC, with Vandy settling in as a solid second within the conference.
“I watched tape of Vandy and I saw a top-five team,” said John Calipari. Of course, the Kentucky coach has long been a cheerleader for all things SEC and the lackluster down-ticket teams haven’t dampened his enthusiasm one bit.
“This isn’t football. You can drop games in February and still be fine,” coach Cal said. “I think we have five teams that will be in (the tournament), and if one of those other teams wins our tournament we may have six in. Now, you have to finish the year. They have to play it out. People could fall flat in these last two weeks. But what our league has done non-conference, and what we’ve done playing each other, I’d tell you we have five teams in.”
The problem with that assumption is the remaining schedule. Alabama and Mississippi State play each other, and one of them will lose. The Bulldogs also have Kentucky on Tuesday night, while the Tide is still playing with two of their top players suspended.
None of that has dampened Calipari’s enthusiasm.
“I hope this league goes to have seven or eight teams in the tournament,” he said. “Where we’re going with adding Missouri and Texas A&M, I think we can someday say, ‘OK, we’re going after eight or nine bids.’ But right now, our league is as strong as any.
“Whether it’s the ACC, the Big East, the Big 12, or us, we’re all the same. Every league has some teams that have separated themselves and some teams that are faltering. Now, you can hype them differently. With us, you’re looking at a league that needs to continue to promote each other, the players and the coaches and the jobs their doing so that people get the right picture of our league.”
The picture Calipari wants people to see includes teams that not only get into March, but contribute to the Madness.
“Look at Tennessee; look at Arkansas. Those are teams that could get on a tear and win our tournament,” he said. “At that point, we’ve got six teams in. And it’s six teams that can advance. It’s not like having seven teams in and only two advance past the first round. We have six teams that could win some games.”