SEC not down, after all

So, the SEC wasn't as down as everybody thought in men's basketball.

Two teams make the Final Four. A third makes the NIT Final Four. And there's nobody left standing from the powerful Big East or ACC or Big Ten in the Big Dance.

It's what you do in the NCAA Tournament that really counts, and the SEC stepped up when it counted most. It is 11-4 and counting. Only three other times has the SEC won more than 11 NCAA Tournament games: 1996 (14-3), 1994 (12-3) and 1986 (12-4). In 1996 and 1986, each of the four SEC teams in the field made the Sweet 16.

Although the SEC's RPI entering postseason play was only fourth – behind the Big East, Big Ten and ACC – you can make a case that the SEC should now be ranked second, behind only the Big East.

The SEC was certainly better than the ACC. The SEC's top two teams – LSU and Florida – made the Final Four. The ACC's top two teams – Duke and North Carolina – went 3-2 and failed to make it to the Elite Eight.

The SEC's third-best team – Tennessee – was a No. 2 seed compared to the ACC No. 3 – Boston College – which was a four seed. Kentucky beat a good UAB team before challenging No. 1 seed Connecticut. North Carolina State lost in the second round to Texas, a team Tennessee beat by 17 in Austin.

The SEC had two other teams in the NCAA field. Alabama beat Marquette before falling by three to UCLA, an eventual Final Four team. Arkansas was the only first-round loser from the SEC, bounced by Bucknell.

Moreover, South Carolina, 11-1 in its last dozen postseason games, has made the Final Four of the NIT as it tries to become the first team in 60 years to defend that title.

What does this mean for Tennessee? It means the Vols season was even more special. Coach Bruce Pearl's team beat Florida twice, swept South Carolina and won the East Division by two games over the likes of Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina.

For the third time, the SEC has two teams in the Final Four. Kentucky and Mississippi State made the semifinals in 1996. Arkansas and Florida did it in 1994.

And the SEC could become just the fourth conference to have teams face off for the national championship. In 1976, the Big Ten had Indiana and Michigan in the finals. In 1985, Villanova upset Georgetown in a battle of beasts from Big East. And in 1988, Kansas upset Oklahoma to keep the crown in the Big Eight.

So Tennessee's 22-8 record and No. 6 RPI was done in a tougher-than-anticipated league that could be the nation's best next season – if youngsters don't bolt for the NBA.

Consider this: Florida, with a nation's best 16-1 mark in March over the past two years, has started four sophomores and a freshman. LSU starts three freshmen, a sophomore and a senior. Kentucky started four sophomores at times and doesn't lose a key senior. Arkansas could return four starters. Alabama's three best players were a freshman and two sophomores.

Auburn, Georgia and Mississippi State return at least four starters.

Thus – if the SEC has no early defections - Tennessee will have to be an improved team to repeat as East Division champions.

It won't be easy. Pearl is out recruiting another guard. He would prefer a point guard to replace four-year starter C.J. Watson, but he'll take the best available. He's confident that signees Josh Tabb and Marques Johnson can play the point.

``As you know, I like playing guys at different positions,'' Pearl said.

Pearl hopes the addition of Wayne Chism and Duke Crews will improve the team's interior defense and rebounding enough to offset losing Watson.

``What a shame we weren't a better rebounding team with such a good point guard,'' Pearl said. ``We were so challenged to keep people off the boards, we weren't as good a fast breaking team as I think we're gonna be in the future.''

With more size inside, Pearl sees a much better defensive team next year.

``This team was forced to play all man-to-man because we were so small,'' Pearl said. ``Next year, we might have better size and length so we can mix in some zone and be more multiple.''

Nine times this past season, opponents shot at least 60 percent in a half. Seven of those came in the second half. Pearl said it was a combination of teams beating the press, being more patient in the half-court offense, and UT tiring. He added a fourth factor.

``We physically played defense defensively,'' Pearl said. ``We were not aggressive. We didn't dictate. The reason we didn't is we just weren't talented enough, we weren't athletic enough, we weren't big enough. So scouting reports were really important.

``In the first half, our defense was in front of our bench and we were able to coach them through a lot of things. In the second half, it wasn't and this team was not verbal enough. C.J. Watson doesn't talk defensively. Chris Lofton doesn't talk defensively. Dane Bradshaw is the only guy down there barking things out.

``We've got to do a better job communicating defensively.''

Pearl would love to see 6-10 Major Wingate play all season like he did in the NCAA Tournament, when he averaged 15 points, 6.5 rebounds and blocked five shots in one game.

Wingate averaged 11 points and 4 rebounds. He needs to average 14 points and 6 rebounds. He needs to improve his rebounding, his strength and his aggressiveness.

``Major is very concerned with blocking out and he's willing to let other guys go get the ball,'' Pearl said. ``I'm gonna tell you, Duke Crews and Wayne Chism will go get the ball.

``I've got to get Major to be more selfish when it comes to numbers. He's not going to the NBA or to a high level in Europe unless he's able to put up decent numbers for a man his size.''

While Wingate doesn't catch the ball well, Pearl defended his big man's hands, saying entry passes to him need to be bounced or thrown high. Pearl also said Wingate needs to be more productive when he gets the ball in the paint, either by scoring or finding the open man. Wingate also needs to reduce his turnovers

Pearl isn't sure he'll get much help next season from 6-10 redshirt freshman Damien Harris.

``He's made as much progress in a year as any player I've had redshirt,'' Pearl said. ``And I can't tell you if it's enough because he was way over his head when he got here. Physically, he's gotten leaner and stronger. His skill level isn't bad. But I don't know yet about the intangibles, about how hard he'll work when I get to coach him.''

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