April 10, 2015

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Southeastern Conference schools want to make sure they have more than just a couple of men's basketball programs capable of making long NCAA Tournament runs each season.

And they're paying big money to try to do it.

Over the past month, Mississippi State and Tennessee both hired coaches with Final Four experience. The Bulldogs selected Ben Howland and the Volunteers landed Rick Barnes.

Alabama also made a run at a Final Four coach by pursuing Wichita State's Gregg Marshall before hiring Avery Johnson, who lacks college experience but has coached in the NBA Finals.

All three are making at least $2 million per year, earning significantly more than their predecessors.

''You have to be committed,'' Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said after hiring Barnes. ''You have to invest. That's what we've done here, and I think there will be a great return on this investment.''

These high-profile hires represent the SEC's latest attempt to upgrade its men's basketball depth. Kentucky and Florida have combined for three national championships and seven Final Four appearances over the last 10 seasons.

The rest of the league has lagged far behind.

Tennessee's run to a regional semifinal in 2014 marks the only time an SEC school other than Kentucky or Florida has gone as far as the Sweet 16 over the last five tournaments. Although the SEC earned five NCAA bids this year, only Kentucky lasted beyond the first weekend.

The SEC's new coaches are eager to change that.

''I wouldn't have taken this job if we couldn't make it to the Final Four,'' Johnson said. ''I wouldn't have taken this job if I didn't see and have a vision of how we could get to the Final Four and have an opportunity to win a championship.''

Johnson will earn about $2.8 million annually, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. He replaces Anthony Grant, who was making $1.9 million per year.

Howland is getting $2.05 million per year, about double what his predecessor Rick Ray made. Barnes is receiving $2.25 million per year to replace Donnie Tyndall, who had been making $1.6 million.

They're continuing a trend that began last year when Auburn gave Bruce Pearl a six-year contract totaling $14.7 million after firing Tony Barbee, who had been making $1.5 million annually. Pearl had led Tennessee to six straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2006-11 before getting fired during an NCAA investigation.

''When I was in the SEC (before), I didn't see 100 percent commitment from every institution in the league,'' Pearl said. ''I do see it now. That's pretty strong.''

That's reflected in the star power of the new SEC coaches. Barnes, Johnson and Pearl all replaced coaches who were hired from outside the major conferences. Howland replaces Ray, who was an assistant at Clemson before coming to Mississippi State.

''You had major schools hiring minor characters,'' said Paul Finebaum, a commentator for SEC Network.

Not anymore.

Howland reached three straight Final Fours with UCLA from 2006-08. Barnes took Texas to the Final Four in 2003 and has made the NCAA Tournament 19 of the last 20 seasons. Johnson coached the Dallas Mavericks to a Western Conference title in 2006.

The increased salaries being offered to coaches also reflects the impact of the SEC Network that launched last year and will add millions to the athletic budgets of each conference member, allowing those schools to spend more on coaches and facilities.

''It's not a mirror image of football, but it's fairly close, where if you're not moving forward, you're getting left behind,'' Finebaum said. ''And not only are you getting left behind, you're getting trampled.''

The new hires aren't sure things.

Johnson is a wild card because he lacks college head coaching experience. Barnes and Howland both were fired. Barnes and Howland no longer are at recruiting hotbeds in Los Angeles and Texas and are instead coaching in areas that don't have nearly as many prospects.

That said, they still provide instant credibility to their new programs. Barnes' 22 NCAA Tournament appearances are two more than Tennessee has in its entire history. Howland has the same number of NCAA invitations (10) as Mississippi State.

They see no reason why they can't continue their success at their current schools while also raising the level of play in the SEC.

''My expectation is we will get seven, eight, nine teams into the NCAA Tournament on a year-in and year-out basis here in the near future in this league,'' Howland said. ''That's one of the reasons I am excited about being here. This league has the potential to put more than half its teams in the NCAA Tournament.''

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AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.

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