Eight is great for the SEC, but now what?

Eight is great for the SEC, but now what?

March 13th, 2018 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Kentucky sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel, left, and Tennessee junior forward Admiral Schofield will look to lead their respective teams to deep runs in the NCAA tournament, which begins tonight with a pair of "First Four" matchups.

Photo by Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics

Document: 2018 NCAA men's bracket

Bracket for the 2018 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship

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Records are broken and records are shattered.

The Southeastern Conference performed the latter this season in men's basketball, placing eight representatives in the NCAA tournament after posting a previous high of six on multiple occasions. There was no sweating on "Selection Sunday," either, as all eight SEC invitees received single-digit seeds.

Now the page turns to see which league team will make the most of March.

"It's a new season with new opportunities," Florida coach Mike White said Monday. "The SEC has had a tremendous year, the best in its history, and I think each one of us could do significant damage in this tournament. There are a bunch of teams in this league who could beat anybody in the country."

Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas A&M will attack their respective NCAA regions on Thursday and Friday with the hopes of replicating the league's success last year, when Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina reached the Elite Eight. The SEC had not produced three Elite Eight teams since 1986 (with LSU, Auburn and Kentucky), and South Carolina represented the league last season for the first time in the Final Four.

The SEC comprised half of the Final Four in 2014 with Florida and Kentucky, but only three league teams received invitations that year, with Tennessee reaching the Sweet 16.

"A year ago we had great success in this tournament, and I think we've built on that," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "We've got more teams in this year, and from this point on, when people are talking about the SEC, I would like to think that they're talking about eight or nine teams every year in the tournament."

This year's record haul is the result of the enhanced quality of coaching in the SEC, larger support staffs and better scheduling, which was mandated by former league commissioner Mike Slive and has continued under Greg Sankey. The league's credibility continued to climb this past November, when Tennessee defeated Purdue (the No. 2 seed in the East Region this week), Florida topped Gonzaga (No. 4 in the West) and LSU stunned Michigan (No. 3 in the West).

In late January, the league won the Big 12/SEC Challenge for the first time in five attempts, claiming six victories in the 10 matchups.

"It wasn't as much about us beating the drums for respect as it was about us performing on the court and playing stronger schedules, which everybody did," Kentucky's John Calipari said. "So when we played each other, we didn't hurt each other. It only helped.

"The SEC has advanced in the NCAA tournament in past years, but we just haven't had that many in. There were teams on the edge that I knew should have been in, but now we've got eight in, and I'm anxious to see it. I'm very confident we'll do fine."

There is no better example of the improved scheduling and how it has helped the SEC than Alabama. In 2011, Anthony Grant's Crimson Tide went 12-4 in league games but had a schedule so weak that they had to settle for the NIT.

This season's Alabama went 8-10 in league play and is 19-15 overall, with Avery Johnson's Tide becoming just the second at-large team ever to receive an NCAA bid with 15 losses. The first was Vanderbilt last year, with the Commodores also receiving a single-digit seed.

Only time will tell which SEC team has saved its best for last after a regular season that was won by Auburn and Tennessee and a conference tournament that was claimed by Kentucky.

"There is no doubt that this year was as tough a conference as I've ever been in," Barnes said. "Hopefully everything we've done, with the scheduling from the very beginning, will get us to play better basketball, because this is what it's about right now."

Said Auburn's Bruce Pearl: "Our teams are prepared to handle whatever they're going to see."

Odds and ends

With eight NCAA teams and with LSU and Mississippi State in the NIT, the SEC matched its record of 10 postseason teams set back in 2001, when six received NCAA invitations. ... Calipari said it was unlikely that freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt (ankle) would play this weekend, while Johnson said Tide junior forward Donta Hall (concussion) is day-to-day.

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