So, is the SEC down this year? You bet, said a former SEC coach, Don DeVoe.
``It's not as good as it has been in the past,'' said DeVoe, the former Tennessee coach (1979-89). ``I just think so many players defected from their teams that would have really made a difference.''
DeVoe mentioned Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State being hit hard by defections. A down league has helped Tennessee vault to the top.
``Tennessee is stronger because they have all the players returning that were really key players,'' said DeVoe. ``The two players that were seniors (Scooter McFadgon and Brandon Crump) a year ago were really not a factor in the team's success at all last year. I just think Tennessee had the right players coming back and the coaching staff is doing a wonderful job.
``Tennessee is on an upward roll while a lot of teams are really on a downward roll at this point in time.''
If the NCAA Tournament began today, Tennessee would likely be a No. 2 seed, considering the Vols' RPI is No. 2 and the strength of school is in the top five nationally.
Tennessee is one of three SEC teams assured of an NCAA berth, along with Florida and LSU. Kentucky (No. 44 RPI) likely will get a bid, unless the Wildcats win fewer than three games down the stretch. Alabama (7-3 SEC) and Arkansas (No. 66) are two other teams that I see getting a bid. That would put six SEC teams in the Big Dance.
Why Don't More Teams Press?
DeVoe said one key to Tennessee's success is defensive pressure.
``There's a focus on really playing hard,'' DeVoe said. ``These guys right now are giving great effort. They're giving the coaching staff a great effort.
``The emphasis is on full-court defensive pressure that perhaps wasn't there in the past. I have not seen teams in years that have struggled so much in terms of just getting the ball in play against Tennessee. When Tennessee scores and they extend their defense, time and again, they have forced teams to call timeout. They lead the conference in steals. That shows how aggressive they've been in paying attention to the game plans and really keeping the heat on opponents.''
If UT is having so much success with the press, why don't more teams press?
``Most coaches play with bigger players,'' DeVoe said. ``Tennessee is a relatively small team. Small teams can easily extend their defenses because they have greater lateral movement. It's just a matter of other teams not having the personnel to do a lot of pressing. That's the way it's been for a long time in the SEC.''
Another reason, DeVoe said, is that when a team breaks the press, it often leads to easy baskets.