The four teams receiving byes in this week's SEC men's basketball tournament:
1. Kentucky (16-0)
2. Tennessee (10-6)
3. Vanderbilt (10-6)
4. Florida (10-6)
The four teams that would have had byes this week under the previous format:
1. Kentucky (16-0)
2. Alabama (9-7)
3. Tennessee (10-6)
4. Mississippi State (8-8)
South Carolina has finished last for two consecutive seasons in men's basketball, but the Gamecocks spent this year looking up at a lot more teams.
In an effort to send more programs to the NCAA tournament, Southeastern Conference coaches last year voted to abolish the two six-team divisions that had existed since Arkansas and South Carolina joined the league before the 1991-92 season. This winter marked the SEC's first 12-team lumping since 1963-64, when Georgia Tech and Tulane were members.
"We knew at the time that with the team we had coming in and the inexperience we had that we were going to go from being in the fourth to sixth spot in a division to near the bottom [overall]," said South Carolina coach Darrin Horn, whose Gamecocks finished 12th with a 2-14 league mark. "We knew that was a possibility, but I think collectively all the coaches felt like maybe one through 12 was a better opportunity to give a truer sense of the quality of our league from top to bottom."
The 12-team grouping wasn't the only new look in SEC basketball this season. The conference tournament, which begins Thursday in New Orleans, has byes for the four teams with the best league records, whereas the past 20 events had byes for the top two teams from both the East and West divisions.
Momentum to alter the SEC tournament model strengthened after the 2010 season, when Mississippi State and Ole Miss got first-round byes with 9-7 league records and went on to play in the National Invitation Tournament. Tennessee, which finished third in the East that season despite going 11-5, had to play on the opening day and ultimately reached the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight.
Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida are former East Division teams that have byes this week after going a combined 20-4 this season against the former West teams.
"I don't know if there is necessarily a fair way to determine who gets the byes," Florida's Billy Donovan said. "It happened to work out this year that four teams from the East are getting them."
Vandy coach Kevin Stallings isn't sure one season is enough to judge the value of combining into one group, but the early returns are positive. After a three-year run in which the SEC produced a combined 12 NCAA tournament teams, which is the fewest for such a stretch since 1992-94, the league could have five or six representatives in this year's 68-team field.
Kentucky, Florida, Vandy, Alabama and Mississippi State are NCAA tournament teams according to ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi, who has Tennessee among his "First Four Out."
"This also has given us the opportunity to not be in the situation where everybody talked about divisions," Horn said. "Alabama would have been the second seed in the tournament last year, but all everybody talked about was just how weak their division was. Nobody talked about that this year."
Said Alabama's Anthony Grant: "I think at the end of the day it was good. Any time you have a chance to reward the teams that have had the most success in interleague competition, I'm in favor of that."
The SEC will have another new look next season with the arrivals of Missouri and Texas A&M, which could lead to more NCAA bids and will guarantee the cellar-dweller of having to stare up at an even larger contingent.