KNOXVILLE — After his team's loss in the Southeastern Conference tournament on Friday, Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin said it would be an insult for the league to get just four teams into the NCAA tournament's 68-team field.
The tournament selection committee made it clear what it thought of the football-first conference on Selection Sunday.
When the brackets were unveiled on Sunday evening, regular-season champion Florida, Missouri and tournament winner Ole Miss were the lone three teams in the 68-team field.
Kentucky and Alabama joined the Volunteers in the National Invitation Tournament after the final four spots in the NCAA tournament went to teams from outside BCS conferences.
"I've been in those leagues, and it's kind of a standard: this is the way we have to schedule as a league, because it's about the league getting in the tournament and not just one team," Martin said Sunday night. "That's something we really have to look at, because there's too many coaches and the caliber of talent in this league to get three teams. That's an embarrassment to the SEC."
It's the first time since 2009 the SEC only received three bids to the NCAA tournament and just the second time it's happened since 1990.
According to CBS Sports' Rating Percentage Index, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn finished 227th or worst out of 347 Division I teams, and though the league finished with nine teams in the RPI's top 100, only Florida ranked in the top 25.
Six SEC teams finished with non-conference strength-of-schedule ratings 146th or worst and Tennessee played the league's third-toughest non-conference schedule, according to ESPN.
The Vols did beat Wichita State, Massachusetts and Xavier before league play, but missed chances for road wins at Georgetown and Virginia and lost at home to Memphis and to Oklahoma State on a neutral floor in a preseason tournament.
"I thought we did a good job with that," he said. "It's just a matter of winning some games. I think it comes down to us as a league and doing a better job as a league scheduling across the board."
He pointed to Illinois and Minnesota, two teams that finished with losing records in the powerful Big Ten and were comfortably in the NCAA tournament field.
"If you're league is strong," he continued, "then you have a great opportunity. There's no way in the world in the Big Ten somebody's 11-7 and doesn't get in the tournament."
The national perception of the SEC plummeted following a bad pre-conference showing, when the league lost games to the likes of Mercer, Tulane, Rhode Island, Winthrop, Youngstown State, Loyola-Chicago, Troy, Alabama A&M, Elon and Marist.
"We, as a league, have got to do a better job across the board with our scheduling and our strength in the preseason," Martin said. "There's some times, without saying any names, in other leagues you're pretty good in the preseason, then not as strong as conference play and you get in the tournament."
For now, however, Martin, who's never been in an NCAA tournament game as a head coach, again must prepare his team for the NIT, college basketball's secondary tournament. The Vols host Mercer, the Atlantic Sun regular-season champion who won at Alabama, on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Because Thompson-Boling Arena is hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA women's tournament, Tennessee would travel west with a win to face either BYU or Washington in the second round.
"It was a case of where we're going for the NCAA tournament," Martin said. "You don't get in the tournament, and now you've got to get your guys back up to compete and play. That's not an easy thing to do."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...