SEC out to prove it belongs in NCAA tourney talks

By Kurt Voigt

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Alabama head coach Anthony Grant reacts during an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. on Saturday, March 3, 2012.

Oxford Eagle, Bruce Newman) MAGS OUT NO SALES MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — 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).

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