TAMPA, Fla. — SEC coaches and players spent all week, and a good part of the season, defending their league.
There’s not much they can say now.
The SEC got three teams in the NCAA tournament Sunday, the league’s smallest representation since 1990. It was a clear indication how the selection committee felt about a conference that ranked sixth in RPI and had few head-to-head wins against teams from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East and Pac-10.
LSU, Tennessee and Mississippi State garnered spots in the 65-team field. Auburn, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky — all hoping to improve their NCAA resumes in the SEC tournament — failed to get in and will represent the conference in the NIT.
“Disappointing,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “We were very disappointed. There’s only one thing we can do, and that is win and demonstrate we deserve better as a league.”
If the number of SEC teams was a blow to the SEC, those seedings might have been the knockout punch.
LSU, the SEC regular-season champion, was a No. 8 seed, Tennessee was a No. 9 seed and Mississippi State was a No. 13 seed.
“I’m surprised at the high seeds, especially Tennessee,” Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. “LSU being that high of a seed, that was surprising to me. When I saw Tennessee come across there as a 9, the kids didn’t know it, but I knew it. You kind of knew where the league stood in the eyes of the people making the decisions when I saw that.”
The Bulldogs upset Tennessee 64-61 in the SEC tournament final Sunday, a win that likely kept the conference from facing even more questions of futility.
Each of the six major conferences has gotten at least three teams into the NCAA tournament in every year since 1988, when the Pac-10 landed just two spots.
The SEC had earned at least five berths in each of the last 12 seasons. The conference had gotten more than three teams in every year since 1990, when Alabama, Georgia and LSU made it. Perennial powerhouse Kentucky was on probation that season.
The Wildcats had made the NCAA field the last 17 years. They ended that streak Sunday, no surprise since coach Billy Gillispie’s team lost nine of its final 13 games.
Florida made history, too.
The Gators became the first program since Michigan State in 1980 to miss the NCAA tournament in consecutive years after winning the national championship.
South Carolina and Auburn, two teams that earned No. 2 seeds in the SEC tournament, felt like they did enough to earn spots in the NCAA field. The Gamecocks were the co-champions of the SEC East, and the Tigers won nine of 11 down the stretch.
The selection committee disagreed, even with SEC commissioner Mike Slive at the helm. It sent a strong message to all the teams that they need to have better non-conference schedules and more quality wins.
“November and December is not an exhibition season,” Slive said. “It’s part of the body of work. That gives teams opportunity, depending on the configuration they’re in, to be able to differentiate themselves from other teams because they can get outside of their own neighborhood.”
Arkansas upset Texas and Oklahoma late last year, and Florida knocked off Washington. But there weren’t many other non-conference wins to boast about around the league.
“It hurts the league when you don’t win games early,” Lebo said. “You can’t move your league RPI in January. If your league starts out at fifth or sixth in the RPI, when you get into the league you can’t move it. You’ve really got to have success early in your league.
“One or two more big wins certainly would have made a big difference.”
Slive contradicted that notion, saying conference RPI was not even part of the equation.
“We really don’t talk about conferences,” he said. “There’s no conference RPI, there’s no data in the room. The conferences are just not discussed. It’s about the whole body of work, who you played, where you played and about how you do.”
And that meant just three spots for the SEC.
“I’m not getting into that,” LSU coach Trent Johnson said. “I’m not on the committee. (Three teams) are very interesting. Washington is a No. 4 seed and they lost to Florida. Auburn gave us the most trouble of any team we played and we went 13-3. I’m very disappointed for Auburn and its players.”