published Friday, February 25th, 2011

SEC on the rebound

CHASING BLUE

The number of career NCAA tournament victories by each current SEC member:

Kentucky* — 101

Arkansas — 40

Florida* — 26

LSU — 24

Alabama* — 18

Tennessee — 16

Auburn — 12

Mississippi St. — 11

Vanderbilt — 9

Georgia* — 5

South Carolina — 4

Ole Miss — 3

* -- Totals after vacating wins due to NCAA sanctions

Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl doesn't mind admitting the Southeastern Conference tends to be viewed as a stronger league when Kentucky is doing well.

Pearl also believes the SEC's perception can benefit when the Wildcats get beat from time to time, especially after they've hung double-digit defeats on the likes of Louisville and Notre Dame.

"Kentucky doesn't have to win this league for the SEC to be strong," he said. "People recognize how good Kentucky is, but they also recognize that Kentucky has been challenged in the SEC. I think that makes a very, very strong statement about the depth and the balance of our league."

Two years after sending just three teams to the NCAA tournament, which coincided with Kentucky's consecutive streak in the event ending at 17, the SEC appears to have reclaimed its status as one of the sport's premier conferences. Six of the league's 12 members are projected to make next month's field of 68 teams, with only the Big East expected to have more, albeit a lot more.

The SEC sent six teams to the NCAA tournament from 1999 to 2004, and the league even sent six in 1987 when it was a 10-member collection.

"I always think we're one of the toughest leagues, but we just had one year where there was a lot of turnover," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "Really, that was just more of a blip on the screen. I think this year is much more typical of who we are as a league and what we've been in the past.

"I don't think we've done anything differently. Some people may have checked their nonconference scheduling a little more closely and tried to do some things with that, but we are who we are, and our league is always going to be one of the best leagues in the country."

The SEC won five national championships from 1994 to 2007, more than any other league during that stretch, and the collapse of 2009 mostly was due to two factors. Florida failed to replenish the talent and chemistry that resulted in national titles in 2006 and '07, and Kentucky was in its second and final year of the tumultuous Billy Gillispie era.

Florida and Kentucky settled on the NIT two years ago but rebounded to make the NCAA tournament last season, with the Wildcats earning a top seed and reaching the Elite Eight. Tennessee also got to the Elite Eight, marking the first time the SEC had accomplished that feat since '06, when Florida and LSU got to the Final Four.

"I think that has helped us," Pearl said. "I also think we've scheduled up, and as the result of scheduling up, we've probably experienced some increases in recruiting. You also have some teams that have some experience.

"Vanderbilt has a lot of guys back. Florida has a lot of guys back, and so does Alabama. Georgia has a lot of returning people, so I think there is more experience in the SEC this year."

Despite having two teams on the cusp of the Final Four last season, the SEC has an 11-13 record in the past three NCAA tournaments. The league had 11 wins in 2007 alone.

"I don't think it matters what our league did last year or that Florida won two national championships in a row," Stallings said. "I don't think that has any impact on how many teams get selected and where we're seeded or anything like that. I think that might have been the case 10 or 15 years ago, but I don't think it has any impact now."

Said Alabama coach Anthony Grant: "Every year brings different things, so hopefully you'll be judged on individually what you do in that current season."

With six SEC teams pegged for this year's March Madness, that would seem to be the case.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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