SEC can earn respect with March run

People don't say these things about Urban Meyer's league. They'd be afraid to even whisper it around Nick Saban. Steve Spurrier would smirk -- and toss a visor at you.

But this is basketball, not football, the sport that gives the Southeastern Conference its national swagger. There is no reason to whisper what people are saying about the league:

The SEC has some work to do this month to regain its status as a major player in college basketball.

You know, like the Big East. Or the ACC. Or the Big 12. It's a pretty deep list. I've heard a couple of SEC coaches howling that even the Atlantic 10 has gotten more love around the country this season. SEC basketball is taking more shots than Big East football.

"The Big East is a great league," Tennessee center Wayne Chism said. "So is the Big 12. But we've got teams that can play, too. We just have to show everybody."

"We need to get as many teams as we can into the (NCAA) tournament," Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said. "And then we've got to win some games."

Pretty simple -- and pretty accurate. And how many teams will that be? More than the A-10?

You can probably count on four now that Florida has dispatched Auburn, 78-69, in the opening round of the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena.

"Probably" remains in the Gators' flight plan because even though numerous bracket projections have the Gators on the confirmed reservation list with Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, coach Billy Donovan's players are proceeding as if they absolutely, positively have to beat Mississippi State Friday night. That's not surprising for a program that has endured back-to-back NIT seasons after winning back-to-back NCAA championships.

"We're aware of all the stuff that people are saying and speculating," said Florida forward Chandler Parsons, who scored 21 points. "But it doesn't matter what we think, and it doesn't matter what people project.

"We won our first game, so we're one game closer than we were yesterday. If we can win tomorrow, we'll be one game closer than we are today."

"I don't know how Florida's considered not solid," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "I think we've got four, and we're looking for more."

Ole Miss sits nervously on the waiting list, needing an upset over Tennessee on Friday -- or more tumbles like the ones Memphis and UAB took Thursday. Mississippi State probably needs to win a pair -- and then wish, hope, pray and wait.

Four invitations would be one more than the SEC earned last season, but it would still be two fewer than the SEC collected in 2008. And in 2006. And in six consecutive seasons from 1999 through 2004, back when the SEC was surging toward recognition as a national force.

Four is several fewer than the league was talking about in November. Before Mississippi State was unable to get Renardo Sidney cleared for eligibility the entire season. Before South Carolina lost Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes, its two best inside guys, before SEC play even started. Before Arkansas was staggered by a string of problems.

The SEC is aware the league isn't crackling nationally the way it did during the days of Rick Pitino, Nolan Richardson, Dale Brown, Wimp Sanderson and the other characters that worked the sidelines.

The league's NCAA tournament record the past two seasons sits at an uninspiring 5-9. Precisely one team -- Tennessee in 2008 -- has reached the Sweet 16. The SEC hasn't registered a victory against a team seeded higher than seventh since 2007.

Last season, the attention of the league went directly to spring football. Just three bids. No seeds higher than eight. Three NCAA tournament losses by an average of nearly 10 points.

Ouch. Can you imagine that happening to SEC football?

When league coaches assembled at the SEC's 2009 spring meetings in Destin, Fla., they were strongly encouraged to upgrade their non-conference scheduling to strengthen the league's profile in the computer rankings. They were also given talking points about the league's strengths.

The SEC's highlights reel has not been empty this season. John Calipari has roared into Kentucky and energized the league. Recruiting John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe will do that -- and put the Wildcats in line for the SEC's first No. 1 seed since 2007.

Tennessee toppled Kansas. Vanderbilt handled Missouri. Florida took care of Florida State and Michigan State. Ole Miss beat Kansas State and UTEP. In games against the five other Bowl Championship Series conferences, the SEC's record is solid -- 25-26.

"Kentucky is a powerhouse," Parsons said. "Tennessee and Vanderbilt are obviously very good. There are players across the league who have gotten stronger and better. Overall, I think the league is a lot better."

Perhaps. But in college basketball, the time to demonstrate real improvement is March.