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story.lead_photo.caption Tennessee coach Rick Barnes talks with guard Lamonte Turner (1) during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Crystal LoGiudice)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Tennessee is the fourth basketball program Coach Rick Barnes has taken to the NCAA Tournament with the Vols as a No. 3 seed in the South Regional.

Previously, Barnes had three NCAA appearance with Providence of the Big East, three with Clemson of the ACC and 16 with Texas of the Big 12.

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CONFERENCE CALL

The SEC ranks second among conferences with two or more NCAA Tournament bids:

ACC — 9

SEC — 8

Big 12 — 7

Big East — 6

Big Ten — 4

Pac-12 — 3

American Athletic Conference — 3

Atlantic 10 — 3

Mountain West — 2

SEC IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT

Seeds and first-round matchups for the SEC’s record eight teams in the NCAA Tournament:

No. 3 Tennessee (25-8) vs No. 13 Wright State (25-9)

No. 4 Auburn (25-7) vs No. 13 College of Charleston (26-7)

No. 5 Kentucky (24-10) vs No. 12 Davidson (21-11)

No. 6 Florida (20-12) vs winner of No. 11 St. Bonaventure (25-7) and UCLA (21-11)

No. 7 Arkansas (23-11) vs No. 10 Butler (20-13)

No. 7 Texas A&M vs No. 10 Providence (21-13)

No. 8 Missouri (2012) vs No. 9 Florida State (20-11

No. 9 Alabama (19-15) vs No. 8 Virginia Tech (21-11)

Overall he's coached 23 NCAA Tournament teams in 30 seasons.

"There is no about that this year was as tough a conference as I've been in my whole life in terms of how every single game was hard fought," said Barnes, whose Vols shared the SEC championship with Auburn at 13-5. "It has been a war throughout, I'm telling you.

"There weren't any easy games because of how balanced our league was."

Tennessee (25-7) is among a record eight SEC teams playing in the SEC Tournament. The previous high for the SEC was six NCAA Tournament teams achieved nine times and most recently in 2008.

The SEC has the second most NCAA Tournament bids this year behind the Atlantic Coast Conference's nine. The Big 12 is third with seven, followed by the Big East with six, Big Ten with four and Pac-12 and American Athletic Conference and Atlantic-10 and with three each.

So the SEC has more bids than the Big Ten and Pac-12 combined?

As crazy as it might sound, that's right.

SEC teams joining Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament are the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (23-11), Auburn (25-7), Kentucky (24-10), Florida (20-12), Missouri (20-12) Texas A&M (20-12) and Alabama (19-15).

"The SEC, as we've said all along, is probably as strong as it's ever been," Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said. "And it's really on display getting eight teams in the NCAA Tournament."

Anderson credited SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey -- as well as his predecessor, Mike Slive -- with pushing the conference to improve in basketball and hiring Dan Leibovitz an associate commissioner and Mike Tranghese as a special advisor in 2016.

Leibovitz came to the SEC from the AAC, where he was an associate commissioner in charge of basketball. He also had been an assistant coach in the NBA and college. Tranghese is a former commissioner for the Big East, which built its reputation as a basketball conference.

The additions of Leibovitz and Tranghese came after the SEC had just three NCAA Tournament teams in 2016.

In a three-year span from 2014-16 the SEC had eight NCAA Tournament at-large bids -- not counting the SEC Tournament winner which gets an automatic bid -- compared to 18 for the Big 12, 17 for the Big Ten, 16 for the ACC and 14 for the Pac-12.

For the SEC, which has "It Just Means More" as it's motto, being considered the fifth of sixth best conference in basketball was an embarrassment.

Barnes recalled his first SEC spring meeting after being hired at Tennessee in 2015 and the message from Sankey.

"I remember his meeting with us, and we were the one sport that wasn't living up to the standard of this league," Barnes said. "He said, you all have to change that."

Improving schedules has been a major part of the SEC's leap in basketball along with hiring coaches who had multiple NCAA Tournament appearances in other schools such as Anderson, Barnes, Bruce Pearl at Auburn, Frank Martin at South Carolina, Cuonzo Martin at Missouri and Ben Howland at Mississippi State. Avery Johnson, in his third season at Alabama, was an NBA head coach.

Frank Martin led South Carolina to its first Final Four appearance last season. Pearl led Auburn to its first SEC title since 1999 and first NCAA appearance since 2003.

Anderson is the first Arkansas coach to have the Razorbacks in the NCAA Tournament three times in a four-year span since Nolan Richardson's tenure ended in 2002. Missouri is in the NCAA Tournament after going a combined 27-68 -- including 8-46 in SEC games -- the previous three years.

Mike White, who came from Louisiana Tech to replace Billy Donovan at Florida, led the Gators to the Elite last year and has them in the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years for the first time since 2013 and 2014.

Hiring coaches with a history of success has helping recruiting.

"We've got terrific coaches -- NCAA-hardened coaches -- and we've got good players," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. "So it's a combination of both."

SEC teams are 46-22 in the NCAA Tournament since 2012, including 11-5 last year when there were five teams.

In 2013, 2014 and 2016 the SEC had three teams each year, but they went a combined 19-9 in the NCAA Tournament. Last year three SEC teams -- South Carolina, Kentucky and Florida -- made the Elite Eight.

"Our teams have advanced whether it be to Final Fours or Elite Eights or Sweet 16s," Calipari said. "We just haven't had that many in.

"What bothered me was, the teams on the edge, I knew should have been in, and more than one. It should have been two or three. Now we've got eight in and i'm very confident we'll do fine."

Arkansas was 10-8 in the SEC in 2014 and had to settle for an NIT bid. This season the Razorbacks were 10-8 in the SEC and got into the NCAA Tournament comfortable with a No. 7 seed.

Alabama (19-15) went 8-10 in conference play to become the first team with a losing SEC record to make the NCAA Tournament since Arkansas was 7-9 in 2006. A run to the SEC Tournament championship game helped the Razorbacks slip into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 12 seed.

"When we played each other, we didn't hurt each other," Calipari said. "We only helped."

No SEC team has a higher seed than Tennessee's No. 3, but White said that doesn't mean the conference can't make another strong showing in the NCAA Tournament.

"The SEC has had a tremendous year, the best in history," White said. "I think each one of us could potentially make a run.

"We've got a bunch of teams in this league that can beat anybody in the country."

Anderson said SEC teams can't be satisfied with setting a record for most bid to the NCAA Tournament.

"The narrative now is to take it to the next level," Anderson said. "Let's go do some damage in the NCAA Tournament."

Sports on 03/13/2018

Print Headline: SEC's 8 is enough to get NCAA bid

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