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SEC goes on major hoops upgrade

Steve Megargee Associated Press

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Southeastern Conference schools want to make sure they have more than just a couple of men’s basketball programs capable of making long NCAA tournament runs each season.

And they’re paying big money to try to do it.

Over the past month, Mississippi State and Tennessee both hired coaches with Final Four experience. The Bulldogs hired Ben Howland and the Volunteers landed Rick Barnes.

Alabama also made a run at a Final Four coach by pursuing Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall before hiring Avery Johnson, who lacks college experience but has coached in the NBA Finals.

All three are making at least $2 million per year, earning significantly more than their predecessors.

“You have to be committed,” Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said after hiring Barnes. “You have to invest. That’s what we’ve done here, and I think there will be a great return on this investment.”

These high-profile hires represent the SEC’s latest attempt to upgrade its men’s basketball depth. Kentucky and Florida have combined for three national titles and seven Final Four appearances over the last 10 seasons.

The rest of the league has lagged far behind.

Tennessee’s run to a regional semifinal in 2014 marks the only time an SEC school other than Kentucky or Florida has gone as far as the Sweet 16 over the last five tournaments. Although the SEC earned five NCAA bids this year, only Kentucky lasted beyond the first weekend.

The SEC’s new coaches are eager to change that.

“I wouldn’t have taken this job if we couldn’t make it to the Final Four,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t see and have a vision of how we could get to the Final Four and have an opportunity to win a championship.”

Johnson will earn about $2.8 million annually, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. He replaces Anthony Grant, who was making $1.9 million per year.

Howland is getting $2.05 million per year, about double what his predecessor Rick Ray made.

Barnes is receiving $2.25 million per year to replace Donnie Tyndall, who had been making $1.6 million.

They’re continuing a trend that began last year when Auburn gave Bruce Pearl a six-year contract totaling $14.7 million.

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