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SEC on pace for big NCAA Tournament, previewing Alabama-Tennessee

Alabama coach Avery Johnson has a theory ... the SEC will be occupy a bigger chunk of March Madness real estate than it ever has before. Tennessee (18-5, 8-3 SEC) has been on a roll lately, winning nine of its last 10 games - including a sweep in its ...

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By By David Ching, special to Rick Barnes has been around the block a time or two in more than three decades as a college basketball coach, but he saves special praise for the conference where he currently works. It wasn't so long ago that the SEC was arguably the most disappointing conference in the sport, but that is clearly not the case in the 2017-18 seasonWith a month left until the NCAA releases its 68-team tournament field, the SEC might even be on the verge of making history. "This is the best basketball league in the country and I don't know why people don't want to own up to that," Barnes said Tuesday after his 15th-ranked Tennessee team won 61-59 at No24 Kentucky"In one week you can go from first to last, somewhere in between, from 10 to four probably, because everybody is so bunched upIf it keeps going like it is right now, this league should have nine teams in the NCAA tournamentIt's going to shake out somewhere along the lineIt's as competitive as any league I've ever coached in." Barnes has coached in the mighty ACC, where he led three straight Clemson teams to the Big DanceHe reached the tournament 15 times in 16 seasons at Texas - including a Final Four and two more Elite Eights - and he's on the verge of leading the Volunteers to their first tournament bid in three seasons in Knoxville. He might have plenty of company from his SEC compatriots. Certainly some of Barnes' praise is run-of-the-mill coachspeak, praising the level of play in the conference in which his program competesBut there is also some weight behind the compliments. With the NCAA selection committee set to release its first snapshot of the current top 16 seeds on Sunday, the SEC might have two teams make the listTennessee and Auburn, No8 in this week's Associated Press Top 25 could be strong contenders for top-16 spots, depending on what happens this weekendSeveral other SEC teams will still be in position to make the field of 68. In fact, the possibility exists that the SEC will get more teams into this year's tournament than it ever has before. The SEC has never had more than six teams reach the Big Dance - a feat accomplished nine times, most recently in 2008According to multiple national bracketologists, the conference is position to improve upon that record by at least one or two teams in 2018. As of his most recent update on Thursday, ESPN's Joe Lunardi's would place eight SEC teams in the field if the tournament started today: Auburn, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Missouri, Florida, Texas A&M and ArkansasThe SEC's eight bids trail only the ACC's nine in Lunardi's projection. USA Today's Jerry Palm, USA Today's Shelby Mast and Yahoo Sports all had the same eight teams reaching the tournament in this week's projections. The conference also had eight teams that ranked in the top 50 in the NCAA's official RPI rankings released Thursday: No9 Auburn, No10 Tennessee, No17 Kentucky, No20 Texas A&M, No30 Missouri, No36 Arkansas, No42 Alabama and No48 Florida. That represents a considerable improvement from the SEC's typical results over the last decade, when it got just three teams into the field four times. The difference between now and then? Alabama coach Avery Johnson has a theory: It's the coaches. "We were telling you guys two years ago when Rick Barnes arrived in the league and (Mississippi State's) Ben Howland and (Florida's) Mike White and now we have Will Wade at LSU - when those guys arrived in the league to go along with the veterans that have been coaching in this league, we kept telling you guys year after year that, man, at some point we're going to get eight teams in the tournament, maybe nine," Johnson told reporters earlier this week. "I think we're headed in that direction because of all of the excellent teams and the brand of basketball that you're seeing here in the SEC." There is merit to that argumentKentucky's John Calipari is no longer the only all-star in the SEC coaching ranks. In fact, third-year Alabama coach Johnson is the only SEC coach who has not led a team to an NCAA tournament bid, and most of them have done it at two or more schoolsJohnson has, however, served as a head coach in more than 400 NBA games and directed the 2005-06 Dallas Mavericks to the NBA finals. Whatever the reason for the resurgence, the reality is that the SEC has clearly improved since the downturn that occurred a decade agoThe conference is back, and if enough teams remain on the course they're following now, the SEC will be occupy a bigger chunk of March Madness real estate than it ever has before. WEEKEND SCHEDULE Auburn at Georgia, Saturday, 2:30 p.m., SEC Network Arkansas State at South Alabama, Saturday, 3:05 p.m. Little Rock at Troy, Saturday, 4:15 p.m(ESPN3) Tennessee at Alabama, Saturday, 5 p.m., SEC Network Rice at UAB, Saturday, 7 p.m. LAST TIME OUT Texas A&M 81, Auburn 80, Wednesday Mississippi State 67, Alabama 63, Tuesday North Texas 67, UAB 60, Thursday, South Alabama 73, Little Rock 56, Thursday Troy 89, Arkansas State 83, Thursday GAME OF THE WEEKEND Tennessee (18-5, 8-3 SEC) has been on a roll lately, winning nine of its last 10 games - including a sweep in its home-and-home season series with KentuckyThe Volunteers are coming off an emotional win over the Wildcats at Rupp Arena on Tuesday, while the Crimson Tide turned in a dud against Mississippi State. Judging by its season pattern, Alabama has the Vols right where it wants them. The unpredictable Crimson Tide (15-9, 6-5) has typically found a way to bounce back from disappointing losses by winning games as an underdogThey did it last Saturday at Florida and they did it the weekend before against then-No12 OklahomaIn fact, Alabama has notched wins against this week's No8 (Auburn), 17 (Oklahoma) and 18 (Rhode Island) teams, so it would hardly be a shock if it takes down No15 Tennessee on Saturday at Coleman ColiseumAt this point, nothing Alabama does should shock its followersWhatever the Tide does, it's usually entertaining, and Saturday's game will likely be no different. OPPOSING PLAYER TO WATCH Tennessee's Grant Williams has been outstanding over the last month, averaging 16.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in the 11 outings since the calendar changed to 2018The Vols are 9-2 in that stretch, surging into second place in the SEC standings. However, the sophomore forward is no stranger to foul troubleHe has totaled at least four fouls in five of those 11 games and fouled out onceKentucky largely took him out of Wednesday's game because of his four fouls, limiting Williams to 10 points and three reboundsWilliams did much of his damage from the foul line, connecting on 8 of 10 attempts. Williams can be a dynamic post player -- witness his 37-point, seven-rebound effort against Vanderbilt -- so it will be highly valuable if Alabama can follow Kentucky's lead and send the Vols' star to the bench with foul issuesTennessee is a tough opponent either way, but Alabama's path to victory grows much smoother without Williams on the floor. LOCAL PLAYER TO WATCH Remember Bryce Brown's absurd second-half performance against Georgia a few weekends ago, when Brown went off for 25 of his 28 points as Auburn blew past the Bulldogs? Well it's entirely possible that Brown will not be fully healthy - if he plays at all - in Saturday's rematch in AthensHe is questionable for Saturday after injuring his shoulder late in the first half of Wednesday's 81-80 loss to Texas A&M, missing the rest of the game. Auburn was in a hole against the Bulldogs (13-10, 4-7) before Brown's scoring surge, and Bulldogs star Yante Maten creates a potential matchup issue for the TigersIt will be up to the Tigers' other regular starting guards - Mustapha Heron and Jared Harper - to pick up the scoring slack should Brown be unable to handle his typical workloadHeron was solid Wednesday against Texas A&M after Brown left the game, scoring 15 of his 28 points in the second half as the Tigers attempted to rallyThe Tigers might need a similar performance on Saturday if they are to dodge their first losing streak of 2017-18. ON THE HORIZON SEC leader Auburn (21-3, 9-2 SEC) carries a one-game advantage over Tennessee into the weekendWhether the Tigers can still make that claim by the end of the weekend, much less after a difficult upcoming slate, is anybody's guessAuburn will host longtime nemesis Kentucky next Wednesday and then will play at South Carolina, at home against Alabama, at Florida and at ArkansasThe Tigers may have all but locked up an NCAA tournament bid, but predicting that they will win the conference title would be highly premature. SIGNIFICANT STAT To be frank, South Alabama (11-12, 4-6 Sun Belt entering Thursday's game against Little Rock) is a mediocre basketball team this yearWhat is striking about the Jaguars is that they're actually pretty good at the Mitchell Center. The Jags entered the Little Rock game with a 9-2 record on their home court, including wins against two of the better teams in the Sun Belt: Georgia State and Georgia SouthernUnfortunately for the Jags, though, they're worse on the road than they are good at homeSouth Alabama has yet to win a true road game - it's 0-10 on opponents' home courts - and it will play four of its last six games after this weekend away from Mobile. NOTABLE QUOTE "Our bench has got to play better and do moreI've always said that when we go to our bench, we don't drop offAnd that's not becoming the case here lately, and so I know our bench can play betterAnd that's what makes us the team that we are is that we go nine deep and we don't drop off when we go to our bench." - Auburn coach Bruce Pearl after his bench contributed 11 points and seven rebounds in Wednesday's loss to Texas A&M View Comments /* */ About Us About Alabama Media Group Jobs at Alabama Media Group Advertise with us News In Education Frequently Asked Questions About Contact Us Online Store Already a Subscriber? 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