Wiedmer: SEC teams meriting more credit

Wiedmer: SEC teams meriting more credit

January 26th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

If you watched Florida's 104-91, two-overtime victory over Georgia on Tuesday night, you saw two of the five Southeastern Conference men's basketball teams expected to get NCAA tournament bids come March.

To the extent that both the Gators and the Bulldogs currently deserve invitations to the greatest three weeks in American sports, such recognition reflects well on the league.

Throw fellow SEC East members Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt into the NCAA pool and it's easy to see why UT associate head coach Tony Jones labels the East "the toughest division in college basketball."

As for those other six league schools that make up the SEC West, well, hey, Auburn has beaten Florida State, which beat Duke, which just happens to be the No. 3 team in the land and the defending national champion.

And the Tigers didn't even need to borrow Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton from the football team to silence the Seminoles.

The point is, as bad as the West appears to be despite Alabama's win over Kentucky and Arkansas defeating Tennessee, this entire college basketball season is as uncertain as the weather. Or did you expect lowly Seton Hall -- which lost to Arkansas -- to drub No. 9 Syracuse on the Orange's home floor Tuesday night?

"There's just not a truly great team in college basketball right now," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said two weeks ago. "That North Carolina team that won the 2009 Final Four would beat any team in the country this year by at least 10 points. But that's also why we could have one of the best NCAA tournaments ever."

The critics aside, the SEC could become a big player by March. In fact, it already has. Even after Tennessee's loss at UConn last Saturday, the league stands 9-9 against the Top 25 this season (not including victories over SEC teams). And six of those are against the Big East, which is supposed to be the best conference in the country.

Beyond that, Kentucky (12), Vanderbilt (17), Tennessee (18) and Florida (19) were all in Tuesday's RPI top 20 with Georgia in the top 40.

So the league clearly has its strengths. Moreover, Florida's early home loss to Ohio State doesn't look so bad now that the undefeated Buckeyes are No. 1.

That's not to say anyone in the league is likely to reach the Final Four, though both the Gators and Volunteers would appear to have a chance, if only because of their depth, balance, experience and ability to get hot from the 3-point line.

Both the Gators and Vols can count on at least three seniors who play major minutes, and neither must rely on a freshman guard to start. Come tournament time, that experience eliminates both jitters and mistakes.

"Kentucky's the most talented team," ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said earlier this month. "But Tennessee has the best depth, by far. And Florida looks like it's finally back to fighting for a conference title again. They may not be as deep as Tennessee, but Billy [Donovan] has got them playing really well again."

Then there's Vanderbilt, which barely lost at Missouri, beat both North Carolina and Marquette before Christmas, then blew out Saint Mary's last weekend in Memorial Gym.

The Commodores wasted big leads in early conference losses to South Carolina and Tennessee, but they may be no more than a point guard away from making a Final Four run.

The SEC has been its own worst enemy this season when it comes to perception. You can't lose to Campbell and Presbyterian (Auburn), Jacksonville (Florida), Nicholls State and North Texas (LSU), Florida Atlantic and East Tennessee State (Mississippi State) and College of Charleston (Tennessee) and not have it tarnish your image, despite owning five national championships since 1994.

But you also can't stand 9-9 against the Top 25 unless you can play a little.

In a season in which no one appears to be great, a little could mean a lot come March.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.