SEC out to prove it belongs in NCAA tourney talks

By Kurt Voigt

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 5 2012 4:30 p.m. MST

"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.

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