Coaches believe SEC close to landing more NCAA tourney bids

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) When talking to SEC coaches, the list of reasons why the league hasn't had a bigger presence recently in the NCAA Tournament is long:

Weak scheduling. Backlash for football dominance. Poor recruiting. Coaching turnover.

Now, coaches say they've addressed all those hurdles but have one more to conquer - perception.

Only three teams reached the tournament in March for the third time in four years and even worse, only one team reached the regional semifinals. The dismal showing reinforced the idea that the SEC just can't compete on the court as well as the league does on the football field.

Respect can earn more NCAA Tournament berths, and more tournament teams boost a conference's identity. SEC coaches have been working to toughen up scheduling, recruiting and play on the court, but Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said they're also fighting something else.

''It's not the perception. It's the reality,'' Pearl said Wednesday at the SEC Tipoff media days event. ''The reality is that we have not been able to get enough teams into the NCAA Tournament.''

This league has a pretty proud basketball tradition that doesn't hang completely on Kentucky.

The SEC earned six NCAA Tournament bids in 1987 when it was still a 10-team league. Since 1992, Arkansas, Florida and Kentucky have won at least one national title each, while LSU and Mississippi State reached a Final Four. Alabama and Tennessee have played in regional finals during that stretch with three others advancing to regional semifinals. The SEC sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament every year between 1999 and 2004.

But the reality of the SEC's tradition differs from the perception of its current state. Add it up and the numbers show the SEC hasn't earned as many as six NCAA bids in a year since 2008.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey took steps to correct this problem by hiring former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese as a special adviser on men's basketball and hired Dan Leibovitz as an associate commissioner. Tranghese attended the league's spring meeting in May in Florida, and Kentucky coach John Calipari said it's good for the league to have extra sets of eyes focused on men's basketball.

But Calipari defended the SEC, noting Kentucky and Florida played in the 2014 Final Four with Tennessee reaching a regional semifinal that same year. Texas A&M reached a regional semifinal last spring.

''A lot of this is the perception of it,'' Calipari said. ''I don't know how you fight that.''

South Carolina coach Frank Martin says having Tranghese and Leibovitz will help with how the league is perceived. A school-record 25 wins last season didn't help Martin's Gamecocks earn an NCAA berth in March.

Georgia coach Mark Fox would like to see the selection committee be more transparent about what teams should target. His Bulldogs hoped to pick up a top-50 win against South Carolina late last season only to be told that a win would knock the Gamecocks out of the top 50 in the RPI.

''It can't be a moving target,'' Fox said.

Florida coach Mike White says luck plays a role. He believes as many as three teams missed out last season by a missed free throw, missed block-out for a rebound or a half-court shot at the buzzer falling.

Andy Kennedy, now the dean of SEC coaches at Mississippi following Kevin Stallings' departure from Vanderbilt, said the SEC has beefed up its non-conference schedules and is starting to see dividends. Each SEC team has at least one nonconference game against a Power Five opponent with Michigan visiting South Carolina on Nov. 23 in just one of the big games.

The league also had up to seven teams contending for NCAA berths in recent years until the SEC tournament. Kennedy said being unable to finish in the league tournament dropped the final numbers.

Then there's SEC fatigue.

''I think people get so overwhelmed with the dominance that is SEC football they all want to take a pause from the SEC,'' Kennedy said. ''They happen to want to pause when we're in the midst of our conference schedule. We have to do our jobs ... This should be a five-, six-, seven-bid league every year, and my hope is we can get back soon.''

Leibovitz has been reaching out to each SEC school to see what the league can do to support promoting programs on campus and recruiting. The league also is reaching out to event promoters pitching SEC teams and other leagues for possible matchups that can boost the RPI.

''I think we're just at a time where we've planted some good seed and we just have to let them grow,'' Leibovitz said.

Results may come sooner than some expect. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said leagues go through cycles, and the message from Tranghese has been that the SEC is close.

''I think we're in position where we can turn that this year, and I'll be shocked if we don't,'' Barnes said.

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Online:

AP College Basketball website: http://collegebasketball.ap.org/ and AP-Top 25 Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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