Mississippi State head basketball coach Ben Howland reacts as his team comes down the court during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas A&M, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)
Sam Craft
February 26, 2016

Alabama coach Avery Johnson finally addressed the NCAA Tournament possibilities with his players this week.

It's a discussion the former NBA player and head coach really didn't expect to have in his first season with the Crimson Tide. Johnson's team was picked to finish 13th in the Southeastern Conference, after all.

Johnson's Alabama squad has been one of the SEC's big surprises but the league's other first-year coaches have also had some successes along the way in their debut seasons.

Johnson acknowledged on Monday the surprising possibility that Alabama could make the NCAA field for the first time since 2012 and only the second in the past decade.

''Why not?'' Johnson said. ''It's the elephant in the room. Without mentioning any networks, it's on national networks. It's on local networks. It's in the local newspaper. It's in national newspapers. It's everywhere on the Internet, so I'm irresponsible if I come in every game and ignore the facts of where we are.

''We've done a good job of playing ourselves into somewhere I didn't think we would be. So now that we're here, I can't keep treating them like they're toddlers.''

Johnson was part of an influx of established coaches into the SEC before this season, a group that also included Mississippi State's Ben Howland, Tennessee's Rick Barnes and Florida's Mike White.

It's way too soon to declare any of their tenures either successes or failures but there have been some promising signs and dividends paid out already with all four teams.

Barnes could have been speaking for any of the first-year SEC coaches in addressing his own program.

''We're still building this culture,'' he said Friday. ''There's no doubt that we're not where we want to be.''

Here's a look at the early returns from the SEC's four new coaches:

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ALABAMA

The Tide's NCAA Tournament chances have taken a hit after back-to-back defeats by Mississippi State and No. 16 Kentucky, dropping the power ratings down to a shakier 52. But guard Retin Obasohan has been one of the league's most improved - and best - players.

This year: 16-11, 7-8 SEC. Last year: 19-15, 8-10 (NIT second round).

Highlights: Defeated four Top 25 teams for the first time in a regular season since 2001-02.

Road ahead: hosts Auburn and Arkansas and visits Georgia.

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FLORIDA

White has already led the Gators to one more win than they managed in Billy Donovan's final season, not to mention into NCAA Tournament contention.

This year: 17-11, 8-7. Last year: 16-17, 8-10 SEC.

Highlights: Beat No. 14 West Virginia 88-71 on Jan. 30, swept Mississippi.

Road ahead: Visits LSU and Missouri while hosting Kentucky.

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MISSISSIPPI ST

Howland, who led UCLA to three straight Final Fours, is trying to revive a program that hasn't been to the NIT since 2012 or cracked the NCAA field since 2009.

This year: 12-15, 5-10. Last year: 13-19, 6-12.

Highlights: Beat NCAA Tournament hopefuls Vanderbilt and Alabama in back-to-back games recently and took No. 21 Texas A&M down to the wire. Plus, Howland can build around freshman standouts Quinndary Weatherspoon and Malik Newman.

Road ahead: Hosts South Carolina and Auburn and visits Mississippi.

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TENNESSEE

Barnes, who led Texas to 16 NCAA Tournaments in 17 seasons, has a proven pedigree and has helped Kevin Punter develop, more than doubling his scoring from last season. The Volunteers, though, have managed only one road win and are trying to avoid their first losing season since 2004-05.

This year: 13-15, 6-9. Last year: 16-16, 7-11.

Highlights: The Volunteers have wins over LSU, South Carolina and Kentucky.

Road ahead: Hosts Arkansas and Mississippi with a visit to Vanderbilt in between.

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AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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