Murphy: Campaigns Begin Earlier Every Year

Are you kidding me? The SEC basketball race is roughly one-third completed, and we've already got at least one league coach mounting those well-worn steps to the soap box and laying out his case for NCAA Tournament inclusion.

Used to be, the last couple of weeks before conference tournaments, these resumé-spouting orations would build to a crescendo. Now, any opportunity to tout your strengths is fair game.

So, Jim Mora style "Playoffs?!" is ancient history.

Sure enough, on Thursday's SEC teleconference, there was Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl -- thankfully minus the orange body paint (we hope) -- speaking about the Vols' pre-conference work.

"For those who are young or undersized, and we happen to be both, it's a difficult time in this league,'' Pearl said. "We have four freshmen in our top eight. And still Tennessee has three of the league's better non-conference wins against Oklahoma State, Memphis and Texas."

True, Bruce. And certainly the NCAA selection committee will take in the severe ankle injury suffered by Tennessee sniper Chris Lofton when it rounds out the tournament field in early March.

But if the Volunteers continue on their current trend, which is four losses in their last five games, those quality out-of-conference wins won't bail them out.

Tennessee isn't the lone ranger in the SEC when it comes to teams that could be sorely disappointed when the bids come out.

At this moment, every SEC team outside of South Carolina can say it has a realistic shot at making the NCAA Tournament field. This is true from Oxford, Miss., where Andy Kennedy's Rebels have been highly competitive on the SEC road, to Auburn, the only SEC West team with a .500 conference record, to Athens, Ga., to Starkville, Miss.

Even though Vanderbilt has ugly looking losses to Furman and Appalachian State, the Commodores are one of the hottest teams in the country today. Vandy has won four of five, including a smoking-hot drilling of Alabama and back-to-back road wins at Kentucky and LSU. It would appear that Vanderbilt, if it plays .500 ball the rest of the way, would join Florida as a lead pipe cinch NCAA qualifier.

Who else in the SEC can you say that about right now?

Maybe Kentucky. Georgia? Alabama?

For Mark Gottfried's Crimson Tide, it entered the week with a No. 14 rating in RPI.com, the second-best in the SEC behind Kentucky. Coupled with its national identity, its 13-1 non-conference record and a relatively strong schedule rating, that sterling RPI is mighty enough to usher Alabama into its sixth consecutive NCAA field.

But which way will Alabama's season turn from here?

There are mitigating circumstances that play into the Crimson Tide's average loss margin of 24 points on the SEC road. Teams are doing anything they can to attack Ronald Steele and his gimpy -- but improving ankle -- and throw Alabama's schemes on both ends out of kilter.

To his credit, Gottfried is keeping an even keel, just as he did last year when star big man Chuck Davis was lost in the conference opener.

There are positive signs even with Alabama bringing a 2-3 record into today's tip against Arkansas.

Steele looked quicker in Alabama's 81-57 loss at Auburn on Tuesday. If he can recover form, the Tide is obviously much more difficult to contain.

Everyone on that club understands Alabama must make defensive strides if the Tide is to reassert itself as an SEC kingpin. That must begin today against the Hogs.

Stan Heath's Razorbacks qualified for the NCAAs last year after a long hiatus. Arkansas is another of those SEC clubs with high hopes, despite their 2-4 league record.

The Hogs will have the residual confidence from their 88-61 rout of Alabama still in their favor today. They'll pit that against an angered, wounded Alabama team in front of its partisan crowd.

Keep your eyes on the matchup of Steele versus Gary Ervin at the point. Ervin ran wild at Walton Arena with 18 points and 11 assists, but his erraticism is widely known.

The loser of this one might start sounding like Tennessee's Pearl: making that early case for the NCAAs.


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