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SEC will try to stop slide

 

David Miller

 

If current NCAA tournament bracket forecasts pan out, the Southeastern Conference will continue its shift down the national pecking order. 

 

With the University of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt considered locks for the field, and Florida making it in most current brackets, the SEC could see another low set in the past 10 years. 

 

Last year, three SEC teams earned bids to the NCAA tournament, with LSU (No. 8) the highest seed. 

 

Since 2000, the SEC has earned six berths to the NCAA tournament seven times and five berths two times. Last year''s total of three berths was a step down for a league with the No. 4 conference RPI (RealtimeRPI.com). The SEC''s recent success in the NCAA tournament is a contrast from four years ago when Florida and LSU reached the Final Four. 

 

As of Tuesday, RealtimeRPI.com had Mississippi State (21-10, 9-7) ranked No. 69 in its Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and 106 in Strength of Schedule (SOS). Those are two factors the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to determine the at-large teams that earn berths to the 65-team field. 

 

MSU is 1-4 against the RPI top 50. Its only win is against Old Dominion. 

 

Of the top four RPI-rated leagues, the SEC has three team (Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt) ranked in the latest Associated Press poll compared to five for the Big East Conference, four for the Big 12, and four for the Big Ten. 

 

As expected, SEC coaches don''t agree with the NCAA tournament projections. 

 

"It''s unbelievable to me people would only be talking about four teams getting in," South Carolina''s Darrin Horn said Monday. "There''s no question the league''s improved and we''ve got a couple of teams who''ve been ranked high all year long. 

 

"For people to be talking about only getting four in is a surprise. When you start breaking down the numbers it doesn''t make sense." 

 

Georgia coach Mark Fox, whose team is 13-16 and will miss the postseason unless it wins the SEC Tournament, said his experience coaching at a mid-major program like Nevada gives him added perspective on how teams are picked for the tournament. 

 

"I think Florida should go. They''ve got quality wins," Fox said. "Everyone has a bad loss. I think Ole Miss still has double-digit losses and Mississippi State won that division; I have a hard time keeping those teams out. 

 

If you wanted me on the committee, I''d probably have all six in." 

 

The key for impressing the SEC selection committee is quality wins, and MSU missed out on a pair in home losses to Kentucky and Tennessee, two top-20 RPI teams. 

 

"We really don''t have any marquee victories," MSU center Jarvis Varnado said. "It''ll be huge if we win (the SEC Tournament) again, and it will get us a good seed." 

 

MSU and Ole Miss are perceived to have weaker tournament credentials than teams in the SEC''s Eastern Division because Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt, who are in the East, are 24-0 against the West. That dominance has led to just two teams in the West finishing the regular season with league ledgers above .500. The East has four. 

 

"Our side of the league was a little bit better this year. That''s why I''m saying Florida should be in," Kentucky''s John Calipari said. "I think we''re going to have five (make the NCAA tournament), and when you look at the field, Mississippi State and Florida are both in if they win one. They win two, it''s easier for them. The great news is, I think we''re going to have teams advance. This league is a good league. On the road, it''s hard to win games. It''s just hard to win." 

 

n Varnado, who Tuesday was named the SEC''s Defensive Player of the Year for the third-consecutive season, received the same accolade from Sporting News on Wednesday. 

 

"It''s very obvious people throughout the country recognize what he''s been able to achieve," MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. "As I''ve said many times, he''s achieved something no one in the history of college basketball has every done." 

 

Varnado has 148 blocked shots this season, the fifth-highest total in a single-season in SEC history. On Feb. 24 against Alabama at Humphrey Coliseum, he became the NCAA career leader, breaking the mark of 535 set by former Louisiana-Monroe standout Wojciech Mydra from 1999-2002. 

 

Varnado has 542 career blocks. Last year, he set the SEC single-season mark with 170. 

 

"It''s a great honor," the All-SEC and 6-foot-9, 230-pound Brownsville, Tenn., native said. "I''ve worked very hard, and it''s nice to be recognized. Hopefully, I''ve got a few more blocks to get." 

 

Varnado and MSU will play the winner of today''s Auburn-Florida game at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. 

 

 

 

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