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Friday May 27th, 2016 11:59PM

SEC set to flex women's hoops muscle this weekend

By The Associated Press
KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE -- The Southeastern Conference is making a convincing case that it's even stronger and deeper than usual this season.

It has a chance to make an even bigger statement this weekend.

The SEC has five teams in the Top 25, three ranked in the top 10: No. 3 Tennessee, No. 5 Kentucky and No. 10 South Carolina. No. 12 LSU and No. 16 Georgia are the other SEC teams in the Top 25. Arkansas is unranked but unbeaten.

"All of our coaches have talked about being the best conference in the country, and I think it's moving in that direction," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "We just have to continue."

This weekend represents a showcase opportunity for the SEC.

Tennessee (10-0), off to its fastest start since its 2008 national title, visits No. 6 Stanford on Saturday. Kentucky (11-0), which has matched its best start in school history, hosts No. 2 Duke on Sunday.

"I think it will be huge step with us and Kentucky to really launch the SEC onto the national level," Tennessee forward Cierra Burdick said.

Tennessee and Kentucky are two prime contenders to end the SEC's recent absence from the Final Four.

The SEC hasn't produced a Final Four team since Tennessee's 2008 championship season. Before this current drought, the SEC had at least one Final Four representative in 25 of the first 27 NCAA tournaments.

Several teams have come close.

Tennessee has lost in a regional final three straight years. Kentucky has played in three regional finals over the last four seasons. Georgia lost in overtime to California in a regional final and LSU reached a regional semifinal last season.

But they haven't gotten over the top.

"I think our inability to win a national championship in the last few years maybe gives people this perception that we're not as strong a league," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "But I thought it was a tough league last year, a deep league last year. We ended up with four teams in the Sweet Sixteen and three in the Elite Eight. I would be a person who'd say it's just sort of business as usual in the SEC. It's a really deep, strong conference."

Georgia coach Andy Landers doesn't believe Final Four appearances accurately measure a conference's strength. He prefers to look at a conference's overall depth. The SEC received seven NCAA tournament bids last season and eight in 2012.

Landers said the league might be even deeper this year.

"I think by the end of this year, there could be three or four you could kind of group together" at the top, Landers said. "Then you go to the middle and there are probably going to be more in the middle than there were last year - a greater number of teams you'd group as somewhat even. And I think the gap between those and the No. 1, 2 or 3 team in the league is going to be smaller."

Landers has seen many of the highs and lows in SEC women's basketball history because he's coached Georgia since 1979. He was there when the SEC sent multiple teams to the Final Four. His Georgia program also was one of only four SEC teams to reach the NCAA tournament in 2011.

He believes the SEC is back on the upswing.

"I think our league over a three-year period has started to come back," Landers said. "It isn't quite back to where it was in the late `80s and the `90s, but it's on its way back. It's going to get back. It's much better this year than it was three years ago. It may be too early to say, but it's probably better this year than it was a year ago. I think there are better players in the league, and they're spread out. They're not all on one or two teams."
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