SEC Tournament As Important As Ever

TAMPA, Fla. — Curiosity finally got the best of Jerry Palm, the owner and operator of The RPI specialist and college basketball enthusiast obviously has noticed the hardships the Southeastern Conference has endured this season.

Palm made a mental note as the conference failed to produce more than a handful of marquee nonconference wins, but he never put the SEC's struggles in perspective. Not until Monday, that is, when his inquisitiveness finally led to some number crunching.

The results were sobering for the SEC, which starts its postseason tournament today in Tampa, Fla. Palm found that the league's nonconference RPI ranked worse than any major conference in any season since he began doing his calculations 16 years ago.

"All the SEC is this year is LSU, Tennessee and a bunch of NIT teams," Palm said. "They barely had any big wins out of conference, especially away from home.

"I'll bet (SEC commissioner) Mike Slive will spend a lot of Saturday out of the discussion room, while his conference's teams are being talked about."

Selection Sunday — when Slive will take part in finalizing the field of 65 — is three days away, and the SEC still has plenty of work to do.

LSU and Tennessee are the only NCAA Tournament locks as the SEC heads into perhaps its most important postseason tourney in recent history. The next four days carry so much significance because no school wants to be a part of the worst conference performance in nearly two decades.

The SEC has earned at least five NCAA Tournament berths in every season since 1996, the year just four league teams qualified and Kentucky won the national championship. The conference hasn't sent as few as three teams to the NCAA Tournament since 1990.

"I think there is more pressure (this year)," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "It's going to be a great tournament because everybody's in the running. The teams at the very bottom can do what Georgia did (last year)."

Every school may have a chance, as Pearl indicated, but some need wins more than others. South Carolina, Florida, Auburn and Kentucky all could play themselves into an at-large berth with a tournament run.

South Carolina likely requires only one victory. Florida and Auburn probably must win at least two games, and a run to the title game might not even get Kentucky in.

All the arguing about tournament berths had several SEC coaches stewing.

"My feel is (the SEC) will get 5 easy," LSU coach Trent Johnson said. "I mean, no one talks about Auburn on the bubble, and I know they handled us better than anyone has all year long. You look at what Arkansas did to Oklahoma and Texas ... how could you not have 5 teams from this league in the tournament?"

Palm's point to Johnson would be this: The numbers don't lie.

Some critics have blamed the SEC's struggles on youth, which has validity since the league is younger than any other major conference, according to Others simply belittle the league's talent level.

Pearl doesn't want to hear any of it, though even he said he realized the magnitude of the SEC Tournament to those schools "on the bubble."

"One of the stories that didn't get enough play this year in the SEC was how competitive it was," Pearl said. "That's because there was greater balance. Everyone wants to say it was because (the SEC) was down. That's a popular word, and (people say) we're only going to get 3 in.

"Well, I'll just say it was a very competitive league that led to a lot of great basketball."

Billy Donovan, John Pelphrey

Today's Ticket

Arkansas vs. Florida

When: 8:45 p.m. TV: KHOG (Cox channel 7, Cox HD channel 707)

Where: St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa, Fla.

Records: Arkansas, 14-15, 2-14 Southeastern Conference; Florida, 22-9, 9-7

Radio: KEZA-FM 107.9, KKEG-FM 92.1, KUOA-AM 1290, FM 105.3

Coaches: Arkansas, John Pelphrey (37-27, 2nd season at Arkansas; 117-93 overall in 7 seasons); Florida, Billy Donovan (307-124, 13th season at Florida; 342-144, 15 seasons)

Series: Florida leads 11-10 (Florida leads 2-1 at neutral sites)

Last Meeting: Arkansas beat Florida beat Arkansas 80-65 on January 17 in Gainesville, Fla.

SEC Berths In The NCAA Tournament

Year Berths

2009 ?

2008 6

2007 5

2006 6

2005 5

2004 6

2003 6

2002 6

2001 6

2000 6

1999 6

1998 5

1997 5

1996 4

1995 5

1994 4

1993 4

1992 4

1991 5

1990 3

Hawgs Daily Top Stories