In the past 10 seasons, SEC Basketball has been like the American League East; great teams beating the crap out of each other. Yankees-Red Sox was Florida-Kentucky and a rising Tennessee is the Tampa Bay Rays (although my skin crawls making that comparison). The Blue Jays would be Alabama or LSU (great talent, but chokes in the last month) and the Orioles would be Arkansas (a great program struggling to gain traction after the 1990s). Since the 1998 season, only twice has the SEC qualified five teams for the NCAA tournament. In the rest of those seasons, it was six teams.
Now, as Mark Schlabach points out, the SEC will be lucky to get four teams in. Conferences rise and fall based on recruiting classes and other factors. A few down years after a decade of dominance (starting with Kentucky's last title), is to be expected. But in a conference that looks more like the National League West or American League Central (depending on your opinion of the quality of AL or NL ball), games in January on national television will go a long way to determining what happens in March.
When the NCAA selection committee looks at Florida (18-3, 5-1 SEC), they will see that their only significant out-of-conference wins came on a neutral floor against Washington and at home against NC State. That's not much of a resume. While a top four finish in the league will mean something, defeating Tennessee (12-7, 3-2) tonight will give a signal of how tough the Gators can be in the postseason.
Last season, Florida would have lost last week at Vanderbilt. They wouldn't have adjusted to the bizzare gym and once they fell behind early, the Gators would have laid down, especially after a tough loss earlier in the week to South Carolina. But from a renewed focus by Nick Calathes and Chandler Parsons, to finally knocking down threes, the Gators look like a legit team again. They've even played some defense, minus one possession against the Gamecocks.
Tonight against Tennessee, the Gators can look in the mirror and see who they were last season; a team that expected to coast through a weakened league because of the names on the jersey. You can make the case that Tennessee is far better than UF. Their losses came to Gonzaga (twice), and at Temple and Kansas. But they have lost three of their last four at home; Kentucky, and their previous two games; Memphis and LSU. Florida has a chance to hand the Vols their third consecutive loss, all at home. Against LSU, the Vols got run over, needing a late run to make it close. Forward Tyler Smith is still their leading man, but there is a lack of consistent support around him. In the last two games against Memphis and LSU, Smith and 13 and 9 points, evidence he cannot do it all himself.