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2016 Bracketology: SEC on the Rise

Our first glimpse at next year offers more proof of the change happening in SEC Basketball.

Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

The initial surge by SEC Basketball in the NCAA Tournament field this year may have only been baby step one.  We've already noted how the league has solved its basketball woes of just a couple years ago by throwing cash at Bruce Pearl, Ben Howland, Rick Barnes, and now Avery Johnson at Alabama, an intriguing gamble.  Johnson has the least-proven college credentials by default, but of the four high profile additions to the league has the easiest challenge from a roster rebuild standpoint.  But the challenge for everyone in this league is only getting tougher.

ESPN's Joe Lunardi released the first of what will be many 2016 Bracketologies to hit the market in the wake of Duke's National Championship last night.  In his initial projection, he has seven SEC teams in the 2016 field:  Kentucky (1), Arkansas (4), Florida (6), Vanderbilt (7), LSU (9), Texas A&M (9), and Georgia (11).  His first two teams to miss the cut in the First Four Out?  Ole Miss and Alabama.  And South Carolina shows up in the Next Four Out.

That's 10 of 14 teams in the SEC in the tournament or on the bubble next year.  The seven in his field are more than any other conference besides the Big Ten with eight, and if you include the First/Next Four Out the SEC's 10 are even with the Big Ten for the most of any conference on the board.

Over the weekend Rick Barnes said making the NCAA Tournament would be the goal for year one:

"I don’t use the word rebuilding because I don’t think you can stand in front of a team .... I relate rebuilding to saying we cant win right now,"

I'm sure Barnes doesn't need me or anyone else to tell him about the challenges Tennessee should expect next season due to its third head coach in three years, but hey, I like the optimism and the expectations.  But those expectations get even tighter when you consider the rising strength of the league.

Lunardi's projections show this is a different animal than what we saw when Bruce Pearl was at Tennessee, and you had the Vols, Florida, and Kentucky as elite teams, and then one or two Vanderbilts and Mississippi States who would cause you problems on any given night and still got on the dance floor.  The new SEC has one elite team at the top in Lexington, and then - as we saw this year - a whole bunch of B+ to B- teams.  For Pearl, Howland, Barnes, and Johnson, there are a lot more landmines in the way in trying to get their grades up.

2014-15 was a squirrely season for Tennessee in trying to figure out which games they were going to win, as the Vols went 5-4 on the road in SEC play and 2-7 at home.  But for right now, the days of Tennessee or really most of this league being able to look at the schedule and say, "Georgia, that's a win; at South Carolina, that's a win; Texas A&M, that's a win," are over, at least for now.  I think Rick Barnes can get Tennessee back to the A-range they enjoyed when Pearl was here, but the journey will be a lot more crowded.  It's a great thing for the league and makes wins in the non-conference even more important as well in order to build a resume with enough wins to get in the conversation.

On paper and now in future brackets, this is as healthy as the SEC has been in a very long time.  Here's hoping Barnes and the Vols can make the strength of the league something they can take advantage of in building the program in the years to come and not something that keeps them held back in a crowded field.