A season ago, the Southeastern Conference had three teams make the men”s NCAA tournament.
A stacked SEC East may change that this season.
With Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt all ranked in the top 25 of the ESPN/USA Today and Associated Press polls, the East is in decent shape to send three, maybe more, to the tournament.
The disparity between the East and West this season is glaring, as the East holds a 17-4 edge against West opponents this season. Plus, all of the SEC”s ranked teams are in the East.
Despite the West”s record against East teams, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury doesn”t buy the notion that the SEC is a one-division league.
“I”ve seen that stat, but you”ve got to ask ”where are most of those games being played? At home or away?”” Stansbury said Monday. “No question, Kentucky is awful, awful good. Florida is good, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, but I think any team in the West is capable of beating a team from the East.”
ESPN.com”s Joe Lunardi, who runs the Web site”s Bracketology to predict the tournament field, has five SEC teams making the field. Ole Miss is the only team from the West projected to receive a bid.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said the East isn”t just the jewel of the SEC, it”s a national dynamo.
“We think the East is probably the toughest division in all of college basketball,” Stallings said. “I don”t think we”re just four deep; all six teams in our division are very good. Our division is a very tough one every year seems like. This year is no exception. We have good teams in both divisions, though the East seems to be ahead.”
League coaches can”t point to a reason or difference in styles between the teams in each division. With Arkansas” mid-season explosion following the return of guard Courtney Fortson, John Pelphrey”s Razorbacks have taken a half-game lead against Ole Miss at the top of the West.
Depth is one area that factors into the lopsided inter-division mark. Kentucky”s rise to the top of the East has played a part in the conference”s improved overall win percentage compared to last season, but from top to bottom the East leads in league wins and overall wins.
“It”s very unique that you can have an entire division get better,” Stallings said. “It”s hard for me to overstate how competitive and tough it is every year because of the quality of coaches. It”s just that competitive.”
The East boasts the league”s leading scorer in Devan Downey and fifth-place South Carolina, which beat then No. 1-ranked Kentucky. The West has two teams — LSU and Auburn — responsible for eight inter-division losses.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who said he holds a winning percentage “a little bit over .500” against West teams, has seen it all before.
“I think during the regular season, the last four or five years the East has had the advantage, but probably more so this year more than any other year,” Pearl said Monday. “I thought from the very beginning that the SEC East would get five teams in the NCAA tournament. I just didn”t know which five. I think it”s just a function of the strength of all those programs.”
Five teams — Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Florida — are ranked in the RPI top 50, according to realtimerpi.com.
The SEC is fourth in conference RPI behind the ACC, Bid 12 and leader Big East.
The conference has held steady overall, while a traditionally strong league like the Pac-10, eighth in conference RPI, could suffer the same NCAA tournament bid disappointment that the SEC did last season.
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