- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Good as the SEC has been in women's basketball, the overriding success of Tennessee has too often obscured that fact. So in a season like this one, when Tennessee won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles -- losing just one game against a league opponent -- the thought nationally might have been, "Well, the SEC might not have been that good this year."
Which is not true. And the good thing for the league is once the teams are into the postseason, they can annually prove that. That has been the case with this year's NCAA tournament.
There are four SEC teams -- No. 1 Tennessee, No. 4 Kentucky, No. 5 Georgia and No. 7 Mississippi State -- left in the Sweet 16, tying the SEC with the Big 12 for having the most teams in the regional semifinals.
None of the Big 12's teams, though, are here via upset: No. 1 Nebraska, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Baylor and No. 4 Iowa State all have lived up to their seeds. No. 2 Texas A&M, No. 4 Oklahoma State and No. 6 Texas did not.
Meanwhile, all six SEC teams in the NCAA field lived up to their seeds -- and two of them exceeded their seeds, as the Bulldogs squads -- Georgia and Mississippi State -- defeated No. 4 Oklahoma State and No. 2 Ohio State, respectively.
In fact, we weren't that far off from having all six SEC teams get into the Sweet 16. No. 6 Vanderbilt was edged 63-62 by No. 3 Xavier, while No. 7 LSU fell 60-52 to No. 2 Duke. Furthermore, both Vandy and LSU had to play on their opponents' home courts.
"I'm very excited for all the teams," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said in a teleconference this week. "I really think Mississippi State stands out, the job that Sharon [Fanning-Otis] has done. But the job that all of the coaches have done is great.
"I think our teams have had a toughness in postseason. I think the SEC has proven they can play in big games and be successful against opponents who are very talented. Everybody is trying to win and [when] it comes down to the late seconds, the intensity our teams have been playing with has enabled us to close out games."
Tennessee, however, has not come near needing any late-game intensity thus far. Early round wins in Knoxville over Austin Peay and Dayton were by 33 and 28 points, respectively, so they were really just like scrimmages or tuneups.
Tennessee couldn't be any further away from the mindset the team was in last season, when it didn't have the self-confidence or cohesion to beat No. 12 Ball State in the NCAA's first round. It seems very dim in the memory because all the things Tennessee really wasn't then, it is now.
That really isn't all that surprising. In fact, look at the parallel between Tennessee's massive graduation losses off its 2008 title team and the North Carolina men's losses after their 2009 championship.
Tennessee's women found themselves last year making mistakes Summitt's squads don't usually make and lacking swagger in a way that's almost unheard of in Rocky Top. When I was in North Carolina earlier this season, I caught UNC coach Roy Williams' radio show one evening, and couldn't help but notice that he sounded a great deal like Summitt had the year before: angry, frustrated and unsure how to coach "effort" when that's something they usually do not have to be very worried about in regard to their players.
UNC's men didn't make the NCAA field in 2010 and instead are in the NIT, which has been good for them. But I would guess next season, it will be back to at least close to same-old, same-old for Williams' team, just like it has been this year for Summitt's.
And it's interesting how this season has come full circle for both Tennessee and coach Kim Mulkey's Baylor team, who meet Saturday in Memphis (ESPN/ESPN360.com, noon ET) to tip off the Sweet 16. Those two faced off in Knoxville on Nov. 15, when we first got a look at Brittney Griner and the other Baylor freshmen, plus saw how a summer of intense workouts had impacted Tennessee.
The Orange Crush won that game 74-65, and the big news out of it was that Summitt had opened in a zone in attempt to neutralize the 6-foot-8 Griner. It made sense but Griner also now has had a season's worth of experience in dealing with a variety of defenses targeted at stopping her.
"I think her skills are a lot better," Summitt said. "What Kim has done with her is put her inside and running a lot of four-out, one-in. She's screening a lot on the baseline for shooters, and sending shooters to the wing, isolating her a lot one-on-one and also from the high-low game."
So Summitt suggested that Tennessee will use more variety this time defensively, which is hardly like revealing a state secret. Regardless of what schemes Tennessee uses on defense, Summitt is pretty pleased with how her players have competed on both ends of the floor.
"I think our team really has a good feel offensively, and that took awhile," she said. "I think what had to happen was we had to get in the gym and put in extra time, and just work on our skill set, be devoted to getting shots up all the time. You can't get enough during practice.
"I think this team has embraced defense. I didn't think we hit the boards as hard as we needed to, and that's going to be a great point of emphasis for us. I like the fact that we're shooting really well, but, let's keep in mind that we had that home-court advantage."
In Memphis on Saturday, though, Tennessee will still have the home-state advantage, even if it is a ways from Knoxville. Summitt feels the really hard physical work of preparation has already been put in by her team.
"It's a time to taper and run through your steps, and improve offensively and defensively," she said. "It is not a time to be getting up and down the floor. We need to relax and have fresh minds. So we will just go over some things, maybe a couple of wrinkles that we want to put in and get some shots in as well."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.