Deep SEC set to get most NCAA tourney bids in league history
By JOHN ZENOR
Mississippi State's Ben Howland was hardly shocked when South Carolina upset No. 12 Auburn, and doesn't believe his Southeastern Conference coaching peers were either.
"Auburn goes into South Carolina the other day and South Carolina dominates the game , which doesn't surprise any of us coaches," Howland said. "It's just so difficult night in and night out."
He is not knocking the league-leading Tigers but praising the depth in the SEC, which doesn't have a team ranked in the top 10 but just may have more than 10 good ones.
The SEC appears poised to land more than six teams in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, with some coaches and bracket observers predicting eight or even nine.
"They're certainly going the quantity approach, which has not been typical in recent years," said ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi, who projects eight SEC teams into the tournament. "They have often had a great team and in a couple of recent cases with Kentucky, historically great teams. And the back-to-back Florida champions, going back over a decade.
"But there have been years when they've gotten 2-3-4 bids because frankly the league didn't seem to care enough about what it took to make up an NCAA Tournament resume, specifically their nonconference schedules."
The SEC and schools have taken steps to remedy that in recent years.
A number of coaches insist their league has never been better, or deeper, though bell cow Kentucky only just snapped a four-game losing streak with an all-freshman starting five.
In fact, the top of the standings historically would be more likely in football season. The Tigers are 23-4 and hold a two-game lead over No. 19 Tennessee (19-7), which lost the head-to-head matchup. Auburn has only won two SEC titles, in 1960 and 1999, but the Tigers just lost center Anfernee McLemore for the season to a left ankle injury .
Four teams are three games back.
No other team is ranked in the AP Top 25, but a nation's best six are rated that high according to the NCAA's RPI led by No. 8 Auburn. Volunteers coach Rick Barnes, who coached in the Big 12 at Texas from 1998-2015, doesn't buy into the criticism that the SEC doesn't have a so-called elite team. In fact, he's not sure any team in the nation has proven beyond doubt it belongs in that category.
"Everybody wants it both ways, they either want a team to go undefeated and think they're elite but when guys bunch up, they want to say, Well, maybe the league's not as good," Barnes said. "This league is as good of a league as I've ever been in. Ever."
Barnes won't find much argument from within the SEC, at least. The league sent three teams to regional finals last year. Now, even the SEC's biggest advocates might have different takes on who, if anybody, is a safe bet to match that feat.
Last weekend backed up the notion that it's a deep, treacherous league. Besides the Gamecocks' win over Auburn, Georgia beat Tennessee , LSU topped Missouri , Arkansas knocked off Texas A&M and Vanderbilt edged Florida .
All of those losing teams, plus Arkansas and Kentucky, are in the RPI top 25.
"I've said from the very beginning, bottom to top this is the best conference in the country," Auburn's Bruce Pearl said. "When the teams at the bottom can beat the teams at the top, and it's just not that surprising, it obviously speaks to it."
Wildcats coach John Calipari believes the SEC should get eight or nine teams into the NCAA field and says "this is the strongest by far this league has ever been."
Some high-profile hires appear to be paying off, including Howland, Barnes, Pearl and Alabama's Avery Johnson. Missouri's Cuonzo Martin, formerly of Tennessee, has his team building a solid tournament resume despite losing top recruit Michael Porter Jr. to injury.
"The league is just different now," said Johnson, a former NBA point guard and head coach. "You can go 9-9 in this league and make it to the NCAA Tournament. That's just how good we are and that's why we're probably going to have eight or nine teams - more like nine - in the NCAA Tournament.
"The recruiting is better. The coaching is better. It seems like attendance is up in most of the venues. It's just outstanding what's transpired in the SEC this year."
By contrast, Alabama and then-defending national champion Kentucky went 12-6 in the SEC in the 2012-13 season and wound up in the NIT.
Howland, a former UCLA head man, said having such tough league competition makes for great tournament preparation.
ESPN's Lunardi believes the SEC is legitimately stocked with good teams.
"It's not smoke and mirrors this year, it really is quality depth," he said.
More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25
Updated February 19, 2018