SEC Depth Bolsters Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament CasePosted by Brian Joyce on March 1st, 2013
Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops.
At the beginning of the year, the SEC was considered a top-heavy league with four competitors battling it out for supremacy. As the season progressed, the league looked more and more like that original assessment was plain wrong. There weren’t four competitors for the SEC crown; it appeared there may be just one. The league became Florida and 13 sources of an endless supply of jokes. But nobody is laughing anymore. In fact, some are arguing that the SEC is deeper and better than anyone could have imagined this season.
Nine of the SEC’s 14 teams rank in the top 100 of the RPI (all RPI rankings are taken from RealTimeRPI.com). Florida (#5), Missouri (#43), Kentucky (#49), Tennessee (#53), Mississippi (#55), Alabama (#62), Texas A&M (#87), Arkansas (#89) and LSU (#92) certainly give the SEC one of the deeper leagues in the country. However, will overall conference depth translate into additional NCAA Tournament bids? That subject remains up in the air, but an improved perception of the league’s strength should help on Selection Sunday, particularly for those Tennessee Volunteers.
Just two weeks ago, the SEC looked like a one-bid league. Now, there are as many as seven teams that could be in the conversation for a berth. And just like last year, Tennessee is leading the rise. The Vols finished SEC play winning eight of its final nine games last season, and they are on another tear at the end of this year. Tennessee beat a shell-shocked Kentucky team by 30 points and is coming off a win against Florida on Tuesday to quickly work its way into the NCAA bubble conversation.
Other coaches are taking note of the Vols’ surge. “I made the comment at SEC media day [in October] that I thought they should be the favorite to win the league,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “I don’t think there should be any question that they have unbelievable talent. [Trae] Golden is as good of a point guard as there is, [Jordan[ McRae has emerged to be, to me, maybe the best wing player in the league [and] [Jarnell] Stokes is clearly one of the best frontcourt players.”
McRae, the team’s leading scorer, knows the team has a job to do. “I’ll keep saying the same answer: We’ve won this one, and we’re going to try to win the next one, then the next one,” McRae said. “We’re not looking at the SEC [standings]. We’re not trying to find out what seed we think we’re going to be. We’re just trying to do everything we can with what we can control now. We can’t control what the committee [does] or our seed in the SEC. We’re just trying to do everything we can now.” And the Vols are certainly doing everything they can. Currently, UT is on a six-game winning streak going into the final three games of the regular season.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin wasn’t bashful when talking about whether his team deserves to be in the Tournament. “We need to celebrate this win tonight and then do everything in our power [Saturday] to beat a talented Georgia team,” Martin said. “That is just the way it is. I cannot go any farther than that because you just do not know. When you look at this team, and you say is this one of the 68 teams? Without a doubt. But you have to do your job. For us, I say we have to keep it out of someone else’s hands. Let’s control the situation.” There is only one way to control the situation — keep winning. When it comes to the final stretch of SEC play, the Vols are no stranger to winning games. The difference this year as compared to last season is the number of quality wins on the Vols’ resume. The SEC’s depth, a major surprise given the perception of the league’s overall strength throughout this year, could end up being the difference maker in Tennessee’s (and other SEC teams) chances for an at large berth on Selection Sunday.