SEC should be well represented in the big show

After only sending six teams to the NCAA tournament one time previously – in 1987 – the Southeastern Conference has sent at least six teams every year since 1999, an accomplishment mirrored only by the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Conditioning. Fatigue. Depth. No matter how you spin it, those three words will become etched in your head for months to come by analysts across America claiming it to be the only factors of importance heading down the stretch run.

So it comes as no surprise to anyone that the resounding conflict about the importance of the conference tournament and its effects on the results in the NCAA Tournament has reared its ugly head - again.

So is it or is it not better for team's to save themselves for the NCAA Tournament?

"I would say that it could work both ways," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said Monday. "We got to the semifinal game (of the SEC Tournament) last year and were able to get to the Sweet 16 last year. Mississippi State, though, dominated the league all year last year and came in and lost their first game (in the SEC Tournament) and then struggled in the (NCAA) tournament. Kentucky wins the (SEC) tournament and they don't get as far in the (NCAA) tournament as we all projected they would."

"It really depends on how you're playing than how far you go in the (SEC) tournament," Stallings concluded.

But while past history may support Stallings theory, recent history does not.

After only sending six teams to the NCAA tournament one time previously – in 1987 – the Southeastern Conference has sent at least six teams every year since 1999, an accomplishment mirrored only by the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But while the SEC has been sending more teams, their NCAA Tournament success has been downright awful.

Prior to their recent run of supremacy, the conference had 8 Final Four appearances between them and had a stretch of six consecutive years where it boasted at least one representative (93-98) in the Final Four.

Since then? The SEC has had one – Florida in 2000.

So what's eating the SEC? The answer may be very simple: the Southeastern Conference is beating itself up.

No matter how you shake it, the conference's added competition has affected the play of teams' heading into March. In fact, Kentucky's incredible march in 1999 and 2003, remains the only conference tournament champion to date to make a significant post-season run past the sweet 16.

-Auburn and Tennessee both won regular season division titles in 1999, yet lost in the Sweet 16.

-In 2000, Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee and LSU all shared the regular season title, yet only UF advanced past the Sweet 16. Arkansas, the conference tournament winner, lost in the first round.

-In 2001, Kentucky and Florida shared the regular season title, with UK winning the conference tournament. Neither UF nor UK advanced past the Sweet 16.

-In 2002, Alabama won the SEC regular season title, while Florida, UK, and UGA won division titles. Mississippi State won the conference tournament. None advanced past the Sweet 16.

-In 2003, Kentucky won the division, regular season, and tournament championships. Only Kentucky made it to the Elite 8.

-In 2004, Mississippi State won the regular season, while UK won the division and tournament championship. Alabama was the lone member that went past the Sweet 16.

So with the added competition given during the regular season, is it best to take an early exit and get the needed rest time for tournament play?

"I think anytime you get to this point in the season – it's pretty clear cut – you win or go home," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Anytime you compete and play, you want to play the best of your ability. The University of Florida has never won an SEC Tournament and it would be great for the university. There are a lot of teams that are playing very good basketball. It's a process and a journey to get to Sunday. We were fortunate to get there last year against Kentucky. I think it's important to our staff, players and program to be able to compete for something like that."

South Carolina coach Dave Odom echoed those sentiments regarding tournament play, offering his support of the conference tournament, citing the intense excitement for team's not already inside the field of 65.

"The tournaments – one and done element to the tournament makes it exciting," Odom said. "Tournaments, though they are very exciting and offer renewed opportunity – it's a chance to redeem ourselves and make post-season play."

Critics against conference tournaments continue point to Kentucky's run last year.

After a relatively easy moonwalk through last year's competition in Atlanta, the Wildcats were booted in the second round by a UAB team, notably fresher coming off an early exit from the Conference USA tournament.

"I thought when you think back to last year, losing to UAB," coach Tubby Smith noted, "UAB's different style gave us problems. Florida A&M, two days before, gave us problems. I don't think it is fatigue. I think a lot depends on when you have to play. We try to tone it back to save guys' legs and keep their energy level up."

Alabama coach Mark Gottfried, whom took one of three SEC teams in the past six years past the Sweet 16, certainly can attest to the benefits of being fresh. His Bama squad bowed out early in the conference tournament, only to make it to the Elite 8 last year. "It's interesting that in 2002, we played three emotional games in Atlanta then turned around and played a Thursday game in Atlanta and never felt that we got emotionally over the SEC Tournament," Gottfried noted. "Last year, we lost in the second round and got back and went past the Sweet 16.

"I don't know if there is an absolute answer either way."

In the end, however, is there any debate against not competing for a championship? "I think if you go back and look at Florida's history," Donovan said, "there have been a lot of good teams that have come through that were, for one reason or another, not good enough to compete, and fell short of that (goal). It's something that we strive for because at Florida we've had nothing but pockets of success and we're continuing to strive to create tradition here."

The tournament, for good or bad, continues to offer that chance.

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