The Southeastern Conference is at a loss for NCAA men's basketball tournament participants again, and some of the league's coaches are at a loss for words.
For the first time since the NCAA expanded its field to 64 teams in 1985, the SEC has produced just three representatives in back-to-back years. The SEC isn't even guaranteed of having two teams in the final 64 of this year's version, with Tennessee having to play Iowa on Wednesday in one of four early games that will reduce the field from its existing 68 teams.
If Tennessee loses, the SEC would begin the NCAA's big opening day with just two teams for the first time since 1979, when the Volunteers and LSU were in a 40-team bracket.
"It's just unfortunate," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said Monday on a league teleconference. "There could have been two or three other teams, in my opinion, that should have been NCAA tournament teams, and it's just unfortunate. What do we do? I don't know.
"I'm still trying to figure that out myself."
Florida received the top overall seed in this year's NCAA field, with Kentucky surprisingly receiving an eighth seed. The Wildcats got that seed despite being ranked 15th in the RPI used by the NCAA and for having the No. 4 strength of schedule.
Kentucky was an eighth seed in 1987, 2006 and 2007 and was an 11th seed in 2008, which was the lone occasion Billy Gillispie took the program to the NCAAs.
"As a league, we've got to figure it out," Wildcats coach John Calipari said. "What were we basing this on? You can't keep moving the goalposts. It's strength of schedule. Really? It's how you finished. Really? Moving the goalposts makes it easy, but at the end of the day, you've just got to go play now."
After Alabama went 12-4 in league play in 2011 but was left out of the NCAA tournament, SEC commissioner Mike Slive stressed that schools needed to beef up their November and December schedules. The league, for the most part, has done just that, but scheduling and winning have been two different matters.
Alabama played NCAA tournament participants Duke, Xavier and UCLA before conference play this season but didn't win any of those games, and the Crimson Tide also fell to Drexel and South Florida in a 19-loss season. Georgia lost to NCAA invitees Colorado, George Washington and Nebraska before going 12-6 in SEC play, but the Bulldogs also lost to Davidson, Georgia Tech and Temple.
"It's disappointing when you not only get [only] three teams in but to put Tennessee in the position that they're in," LSU coach Johnny Jones said. "Look at how Georgia played down the stretch this season. Other teams get credit when players are either suspended or injured, but nobody is talking about [guard Kenny] Gaines being out a couple of important games for a good Georgia team.
"The teams in our league that did make it have to go out there and have a great showing, because whatever the myth or perception of our league is, we've got to change it, and it's going to have to come about by winning."
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson believes the SEC is a lot better than people give it credit for, and it's certainly strong at the very top, with Florida being ranked No. 1 and having won 26 consecutive games. The Gators extending their success these next three weeks could do as much as anything to enhance the league's reputation.
No conference has won more national titles the past 20 years than the SEC, which has three by Kentucky, two by Florida and one by Arkansas, yet no major league appears to be begging for more respect.
"At one time, there was hope we could maybe get in five teams in, because obviously Arkansas and Missouri were right there," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Could Arkansas or Missouri go into the NCAA tournament and win games? The answer is without question they could. Obviously there is a complete body of work that the committee takes into consideration, and those teams came up a little bit short."
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