SEC coaches talk NCAA hoops

After months of commentary about how the SEC was in a down cycle the league placed seven teams in the NCAA Tournament, and the coaches said Tuesday that the perception of a drop-off was misguided. With three other teams selected to play in the WNIT – 10 total in postseason in a 12-team conference – the coaches felt a degree of vindication for their defense of the SEC.

"I was one who all year kept saying – I was quoted in Sports Illustrated – and I said the fact that Tennessee and LSU are young and were down a little bit this year I think they just wrote off our conference," Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb said Tuesday during the media teleconference for SEC coaches whose teams were in the NCAA's field of 64.

"That was disappointing to me because I felt like from top to bottom our conference was tougher than ever. I don't think it lost anything. Yes, we didn't have the teams that were ranked in the top three or four but then Auburn ended up doing that, so I just felt like night in and night out we could win or lose to anybody and from top to bottom you have some teams in the lower half that are upsetting people that hadn't in the past. There's more parity in our conference and a lot of new, young coaches coming in and doing a great job with their teams."

LSU Coach Van Chancellor also noted that three league teams got into the WNIT.

"All of those people talking about the Southeastern Conference being down do not coach in the Southeastern Conference," Chancellor said. "We've got Arkansas, Kentucky and Ole Miss in the NWIT, NIT, whatever the initials are, and that's going to give us 10 teams in postseason play. So if this is a down year I don't want to be coaching when it's an up year."

The NCAA tourney-bound seven teams, which received seeds ranging from two to 11, are: Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

AUBURN COACH NELL FORTNER

No. 2 seed Auburn (29-3) will play No. 15 seed Lehigh (26-6) on Saturday (noon, ESPN2) in Piscataway, N.J.

"We're really looking forward to playing in the tournament," Nell Fortner said. "It seems like it's been a long two weeks since we played. We did a lot of work already on Lehigh over the night last night and look forward to getting on the practice court."

If Auburn advances to the second round it will play the winner of Rutgers-VCU in a game that will be played on Rutgers' home floor at the RAC. It is a peculiarity of the women's tournament that a higher seed can play on a lower seed's home floor – Tennessee did the past two years at Pitt and Purdue in the second round – because the sub-regional sites are awarded by bid and if the host team makes the field it is guaranteed to open at home. The regional games are also awarded by bid – individual teams or conferences can be the hosts – but the courts are neutral sites.

"It's just part of how our tournament operates," Fortner said. "I don't think there's anyway around it with how the tournament operates right now. You bid to host first and second rounds and some years you're going to have a team that makes the tournament and some years you're not. It's just the way the tournament works right now.

"Do I wish it could go back to how it was? Sure. You're the higher seed, then you host the first and second rounds. But I don't think we can do that with television needing to know in advance where the games are going to be played. I think this is just what we're left with, and you have to go out there and play tough games on people's home courts and that's just the way it is. We'll be ready to play just like everybody else in this tournament will be ready to play wherever they send us."

Fortner was happy to see six sister teams in the field.

"For as much as we've been maligned this year and saying our league is down to get seven teams in is quite a compliment to the league," Fortner said. "I think it's fitting. This is an incredibly tough league, and I look forward to seeing how we fare in the NCAA Tournament."

FLORIDA COACH AMANDA BUTLER

No. 8 seed Florida (23-7) will play No. 9 seed Temple (21-9) on Sunday (2:20 p.m., ESPNU) in Storrs, Conn.

"It's going to be a great challenge," Amanda Butler said. "There's no question Temple is always a team that prides itself in postseason play and certainly in the NCAA Tournament they're very tough. They're a great rebounding team, very well coached, have some good experience in their junior and senior class. Obviously both of us are having to travel and so that's not a factor, but I am sure it's going to be a great challenge."

Butler also scoffed at the notion that the SEC had slipped and said the perception came from those outside its borders.

"I don't think there was anyone from our league that ever believed our league was down," Butler said. "I don't think there was anybody that competed in our league that was surprised by seven teams getting in. I think we felt very confident in the fact that we knew there were at least seven that deserved to be in the NCAA Tournament field, and it's great for that to be recognized by the committee and for us to have seven in, because I don't think by any stretch it was a down year for our league.

"I think that was a perception because maybe Tennessee and LSU weren't as strong as they had been the previous four years, in particular. But we had great strength in our league from top to bottom and no surprise to me at all for everyone that got in to be in and I just hope everyone has a great first round game, and we see a lot of SEC teams advance."

GEORGIA COACH ANDY LANDERS

No. 11 seed Georgia (18-13) will play No. 6 seed Arizona State (23-8) on Saturday (1 p.m., ESPN2) in Duluth, Ga.

"We're certainly excited," Andy Landers said. "Our team is excited about being part of another NCAA Tournament and also very excited about the opportunity to play an outstanding Arizona State team. I say outstanding because the fact of the matter is they're one game away late in the season from being co-Pac 10 champs with Stanford. They are one of the best field goal percentage teams in America and one of the best defensive basketball teams in America. They're a very talented, very well coached basketball team and one that we look forward to playing."

The Lady Bulldogs were a bubble team to make the field, and the team was thrilled when its name popped up on the screen. Landers had expressed concerns at the SEC tourney about whether or not Georgia would get a slot. He specifically mentioned upsets in conference tournaments that allowed a team that would not have made it to get an automatic bid and bump a bubble team. Southern Cal didn't upset Stanford, for example, which would have created an additional school from the Pac 10 getting in that would not have otherwise and one less at-large spot for a school like Georgia.

"Very pleased and very excited," Landers said. "Our team obviously was very excited. It was not a position that we're very familiar with and the uncertainty that I had at the Southeastern Conference I think was justified, if for no other reason we were treading ground that we haven't often treaded before in that generally by some point in the season and even usually after the SEC Tournament there's a general understanding that we've earned a bid and oftentimes more times than not we've been anxious about how high that bid might be, so this was a different situation for us to be concerned about whether or not we were going to get a bid."

Georgia was assigned to the Trenton Region, which was the last one announced Monday so the Lady Bulldogs had nearly an hour to watch and wait.

"There was anxiety because you're sitting there watching an almost complete bracket and your name has not come up yet," Landers said. "That seems to happen to us regardless of where we're going, who we're playing or what seed we are. Maybe those are the memories that stick, but it seems like we come up late in that show.

"But as you watch and see everyone else from the conference go on the board you realize that there's an opportunity for a couple of more at-larges in that last small grouping and you still have a shot. You just don't know what's behind door one and two before they open it."

Landers saluted the committee for its overall job with the brackets.

"It isn't unusual for us to have a large contingent in the NCAA Tournament, and I certainly think that this seven are in the top 64 teams in the country," Landers said. "I applaud the committee not just for the SEC representation but for their entire body of work. I think it's an excellent bracket.

"You know, down is relative. What we have had some years is we have had two teams who were in the hunt for number one and number two seeds from beginning to end. We did not have that this year, so in that sense perhaps we were down. But in the sense of having very competitive teams throughout the league it was a typical Southeastern Conference year."

LSU COACH VAN CHANCELLOR

No. 6 seed LSU (18-10) will play No. 11 seed Wisconsin-Green Bay (29-3) on Sunday (7 p.m., ESPN2) in Baton Rouge, La.

"We are thrilled to be in the tournament," Van Chancellor said. "When we were 5-4 (in the conference), 12-9 overall, we thought we might be on spring break today but that's why we're so excited. Our team has accomplished so much. In our last seven games we won six of them. This is a team I think has accomplished as much as any team I've ever been around."

Chancellor also wasn't accepting the season-long proclamation that the SEC had slipped.

"Auburn is pretty doggone good," Chancellor said. "We don't have an LSU to go with Auburn like we had with Tennessee last year but I'll tell you this much I bet you right now that Arizona State doesn't want to play Georgia. I bet you Texas doesn't want to play Mississippi State.

"Every night you've got to win a game," Chancellor said. "That's what makes this league separate from everybody else. There are no gimme wins in this league."

That could be initially dismissed as coach-speak in defense of the conference, but the only two teams that didn't make the postseason – Alabama and South Carolina – weren't always overmatched. Alabama was within striking distance of Auburn deep into the second half in the regular season and led Tennessee at halftime in the SEC tourney. South Carolina, which was gutted by injury, jumped out to an 18-0 lead on Mississippi State in the tourney. Late in the season, Kentucky beat Tennessee and came within a last-second shot of beating LSU in Baton Rouge despite being without a major player in the post.

"We got seven teams in, and I'm proud for our league," Chancellor said.

MISSISSIPPI STATE SHARON FANNING

No. 11 seed Mississippi State (22-9) will play No. 6 seed Texas (21-11) on Saturday (noon, ESPN2) in Columbus, Ohio.

"Texas is a very athletic team," Sharon Fanning said. "They have some great experience. It's going to be a team that you have to guard hard, and they're quick to rim."

Texas has Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss on the bench, a longtime assistant at Tennessee and former head coach at Kentucky, and also in the bracket is Ohio State, which is coached by Jim Foster, who was at the helm at Vanderbilt for years.

"Mickie DeMoss has been around our league a long time so she's very familiar with SEC opponents," Fanning said. "It's ironic in a way. You go into Columbus, Ohio, and you have Mickie there and Foster was on the other end of it. Right now we just have to play our best basketball, and we have to be a more consistent basketball team. We still haven't played for 40 minutes like you're going to have to at this time of year so hopefully this is something we'll step up to. I think the team is very excited about it. It's a whole new season for a team, and you have to be ready to leave it on the floor."

When Fanning was asked about what her team had to do and stay away from to get to the second round, she laughed and said, "We have to win and then stay away from losing."

"No, we have to defend. We have to guard hard and really, really work to contest shots and limit second shots. The rebounding is so important. You've got to box out. And then you've got to find some offensive boards. That's the way you find a few extra shots. Patience and shot selection. Offensively we have to execute in the half-court game. We haven't gotten to the free throw line. We need to get there. … (If Mississippi State does those things), I think that we can play with anyone."

Fanning agreed with the assessment that a drop for LSU and Tennessee didn't translate to the entire league plummeting.

"We didn't have the two Final Four teams mentality as far as teams being in the top five all year long, but I think it's deeper than it's ever been," Fanning said. "For Tennessee to be a five seed and to be fifth in the league – they beat Rutgers at Rutgers, they beat Stanford, and they're a very young team; they're going to continue to progress as they play more games – I just think it speaks to the depth of the league.

"There had to be some recognition of it or else they wouldn't have put the seven teams in there. So I think they did their homework. Right now it's a new season. We all need to step up and to make sure that we represent the league. I think that would be everybody's focus not only individually but I think collectively as a unit that the SEC coaches, there's a lot of respect there, excitement for all of us to be a part of that so hopefully the seven here and the three in the NIT will step up and represent in a very positive way."

TENNESSEE COACH PAT SUMMITT

No. 5 seed Tennessee (22-10) will play No. 12 seed Ball State (25-8) on Sunday (9:20 p.m. ESPN2) in Bowling Green, Ky.

"The time over spring break has been well spent," Pat Summitt said. "We've obviously had some really good practices. It's a time when they're not in class and so you can really focus on getting better as a basketball team. We put a lot of emphasis on our defense and making defensive stops and obviously our rebounding. I think that's always been a point of emphasis for our team and our program at this time of the year in particular. I think we've made a little progress in terms of our emphasis on being a 40-minute team."

Summitt was asked about the first-year contributions of Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson.

"Shekinna has stepped up big for us and had to play multiple positions – played her at the point, played her on the wing, posted her up," Summitt said. "There are a lot of dimensions to her offensive package and I think it allowed us to enjoy success because of what she brings. Glory Johnson is a terrific athlete and right now she's trying to get fully healthy. When you just talk about a player with her versatility offensively and particularly defensively being able to defend on the perimeter, we anticipate seeing even more of that in the postseason. She is certainly a player that had an impact this year."

Summitt was asked about getting a five seed – the lowest in program history after getting a four seed in 1986 and a three seed in 1997. Tennessee was a one or two seed in the other 25 NCAA draws.

"We're in a different role, and it's been awhile since we had this role, but at the same time with a young team I think it's important to focus on what we can control in practice," Summitt said. "At times being the underdog you can get a team to really bring more intensity, which is what I'm expecting. I think they know that. For this young team it was interesting to watch them sit there and realize the bracket. I'm counting on them to step up and play their best ball of the year."

Summitt also was asked about parity in the women's game and she noted it was not on par with the men's game, but the gap continued to close.

"You've got a team like Connecticut right now who looks almost untouchable but as we all know anything can happen in postseason and crazy things do happen if a team comes together at the right time," Summitt said. "I like what I'm seeing in our league this year."

Tennessee will open the tourney on a neutral court in Bowling Green – Western Kentucky is not in the field of 64 – but the Lady Vols have played early round games against the home team.

"Sometimes a draw like that will bring out the absolute best and that's exactly what you have to do and find a way to get your players to understand don't look at the big bracket," Summitt said. "Look at the first game. All we are concerned about is Ball State."

Summitt said the coaches recognized that the SEC was a tough conference from the sidelines.

"Well, obviously, because we're in the league and we have to battle night in and night out we appreciate the strength of our conference and certainly for us this year more so than ever," Summitt said. "I think I can say that you look at the teams that are in and it's not a big surprise by any means because night in and night out you've got to bring your ‘A' game, and you've got to be ready to play.

"I'm certainly excited for our league. It just speaks volumes to who we are and that we're still one of the best conferences in the country."

VANDERBILT COACH MELANIE BALCOMB:

No. 4 seed Vanderbilt (24-8) will play No. 13 seed Western Carolina (21-11) on Saturday (8 p.m. ESPN2) in Albuquerque, N.M.

"I think right now winning our last three games in the SEC Tournament we're playing our best basketball in March and we have momentum that we want to carry over," Melanie Balcomb said. "That's the biggest thing – trying to get that momentum and feel confident and playing the way we're playing right now. I think the key is focusing on that first game and being ready for it and then trying to carry the momentum from the first game.

"Western Carolina is a great team. I think Kellie Harper is obviously a well-prepared coach. She'll have them well prepared. They run great stuff, they can score inside and out and I think they're a great rebounding team. You want teams that play great defense and rebound right now, and that's why they won their conference and they're in the NCAA Tournament."

The Commodores got the same opening NCAA site as a year ago.

"I don't see it as anything but we've been there before, and we do have positive thoughts going in and I'm a mental coach," Balcomb said. "I believe in the mental part of the game and I think it's a court that we're familiar with, the altitude we're familiar with, so I think sometimes there's a comfort level instead of having an unknown.

"We have most of our players returning so most of them have played there, but in the end it's not going to really mean anything. I think the biggest thing is we're used to being sent out west and traveling and so we were prepared to do so. It would have been nice to stay home for our fans, but we have players that are from all over, including our two seniors that are from out west and their families that don't get to see a lot of games and will be able to come."

Auburn won the regular season, and Vandy, which won the SEC tourney, placed second. Replacing the traditional powers of Tennessee and LSU in those spots didn't mean the entire league had fallen, Balcomb said.

"I thought just in the shift of Auburn being first and us second instead of LSU and Tennessee I just thought it (the SEC) got played down, and it's really great to see that the NCAA Selection Committee did not punish us for that and put the seven teams in that deserved to be in," Balcomb said.

LADY VOL PRACTICE REPORT: Head Coach Pat Summitt and Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick both wore green for St. Patrick's Day. Warlick was aware of the date. Summitt had to be reminded and changed from a blue shirt into a green one.

Summitt's primary concern is not seeing red with three-point shooters left open.

"Two of the three teams in our bracket in particular are devoted to the three ball," Summitt said, including the opener on Sunday night against Ball State. "We've got to make sure that we disrupt that. Just commit to our scouting report and have a sense of urgency to defend the three ball."

That was the bulk of Wednesday's practice – spread the floor and find the shooters. The Lady Vols worked on the concepts in half and full court sets.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "I think after Oklahoma – and I'd have to go back and look and see how many we gave up – but remember (Whitney) Hand had her way with us. After that we put more of an emphasis on it in our practices and a lot of our scouting."

Florida's Sha Brooks also got loose in February in Gainesville, but she also banked in a three from about 23 feet out.

"She just got on a roll at the end," Summitt said. "She literally took over the game."

The defense was pretty stout Tuesday – though Angie Bjorklund drained her long range shots more often than not and often with a defender in her face – but that's a good thing for Tennessee at this time of year from an offensive standpoint.

After three days of intense sessions, Summitt opted to take off Wednesday.

"It's simple," Summitt said. "They need their legs. Just talking with Heather (Mason) last night I asked her what she would advise in terms of practices and she said she thought it would be a great time to have a day off. I told her that's what I was thinking.

"She said, ‘We've got to have our legs at this time of the year. They can be the first thing to go.' So I just want to make sure that we stay fresh."

Still, with school out – though some players are using the break to get papers written before next week – the players have extra time so several went to Pratt Pavilion after the regular session ended to work with Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, led by the starting frontline of Alex Fuller, Kelley Cain and Glory Johnson, who has a hard cast on her left thumb and taped fingers on her right to protect a middle finger, but hasn't been hindered in practice. On Monday, Cain wanted to slap hands with Johnson after a good play but stopped in mid-arm action when she realized nearly all of Johnson's digits had some kind of wrap.

"I think it's been a great benefit for us to not be in and out of classes," Summitt said. "We just finished practice, and there's four or five of them going over to Pratt to get in extra shots."

Summitt watched her players watch the selection show on Monday, and she thinks the sense of urgency might have sunk in finally.

"I think last night just the fact the freshmen I'm sure sitting there they realized how important this tournament is and what a big deal it is," Summitt said. "You have to win or you go home, and it's over."


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