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Lead by Tennessee senior Cierra Burdick, the Lady Vols warm up at practice at the NCAA women's college basketball tournament in Knoxville.

South Carolina and Tennessee have reached the Sweet 16 of this year's NCAA women's basketball tournament, but getting to the Final Four has become a much greater obstacle for the Southeastern Conference.

Once a fixture at the sport's four-team pinnacle, the SEC hasn't produced a Final Four representative since Pat Summitt's Lady Vols won their eighth national championship in 2008.

some text South Carolina's Tiffany Mitchell, left, drives past Syracruse's Cornellia Fondren after a steal during the first half of a college basketball game in the second round of the NCAA tournament Sunday, March 22, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina won 97-68.

"I'm not sure why it's been that the SEC has been the power conference out of the mix other than there is more of an abundance of better teams and better players spread out across the county," ESPN women's basketball analyst Charlie Creme said recently on "Press Row" on ESPN 105.1 FM. "I don't think it's an indictment on the SEC by any means. It's still perennially one of the deepest leagues, which makes it a grind to get through the season.

"UConn has taken over a spot in the Final Four, so that blocks 25 percent of the Final Four field, and Notre Dame has pretty much done the same. That really leaves only two spots open to everybody else."

In the first 10 years of the NCAA tournament from 1982 to 1991, the Final Four was an SEC playground. Tennessee made seven trips to the Final Four and won three national championships, while Auburn made three Final Four trips during that time and Georgia made two.

The league party grew throughout the 1990s, as Vanderbilt, Alabama and Arkansas reached the Final Four, and Tennessee won three straight national crowns from 1996 to '98. The Lady Vols downed Georgia in the '96 title game, marking their second championship at the expense of a fellow league member, having defeated Auburn in 1989.

Jim Foster, the current coach at UTC, guided Vanderbilt to the 1993 Final Four and was a recent guest on "Press Row."

"I think the players are better now, but I'm not sure the coaches are," Foster said. "If you're comparing the SEC right now to back then, you had Joe Ciampi at Auburn, Van Chancellor at Mississippi, Pat Summitt at Tennessee, Andy Landers at Georgia, Sue Gunter at LSU and Gary Blair at Arkansas. Those are all Hall of Fame coaches.

some text UTC women's basketball coach Jim Foster directs players during the Mocs' SoCon basketball game against the Furman Paladins on Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, at McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga, Tenn. UTC won 67-45.
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"I've always said that in the SEC, it can be very difficult going up against a coach who's in the right situation. It's that way in football. Look at Alabama with Nick Saban. You've got to have the right person in the right place, and there was a time when the SEC had the right person in a lot of places. It's not quite the same today."

The Elite Eight has become the stop sign for SEC teams in recent years. Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee each reached the national quarterfinals just two seasons ago before getting bounced, while only Texas A&M got to the Elite Eight last year.

Auburn, Georgia, Tennessee and Vanderbilt gave the SEC half of the Elite Eight back in 1996, but the two Sweet 16 representatives this week are the fewest since Vanderbilt was the lone league team to advance out of the opening weekend in 2009.

"The level was so high in SEC women's basketball that other people either had to step up or be embarrassed," Foster said, "so you had other people across the country step up their game and pay attention to it. As a result, things have changed significantly. Notre Dame has had women's basketball for a long time, but they got a lot more serious about it, and you can see the result."

Said Creme: "I think Tennessee's talent level took a slight hit after Candace Parker left, and that may play into it. They've certainly had talented teams since but not to the level of their teams in the '90s."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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