SEC Basketball Report:

Coaches say league is all grown up now

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson watches as his Razorbacks defeat UT Martin during the second half of the basketball game in Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Thursday December 19, 2013.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson watches as his Razorbacks defeat UT Martin during the second half of the basketball game in Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Thursday December 19, 2013.

FAYETTEVILLE - The SEC hopes to bounce back in the next three months after hitting rock bottom last season.

The SEC finished as the No. 8 men’s basketball league last year in analyst Jerry Palm’s conference rankings and sent just three of its 14 teams to the NCAA Tournament, where only Florida, which lost 79-59 to Michigan in the South Region final, advanced past the first weekend.

To make matters worse, league kingpin Kentucky, which won the 2012 NCAA championship, was bounced in a first-round NIT game, as was Tennessee. Only Alabama, which won two games, could muster an NIT victory as the SEC bowed out meekly in postseason play.

With SEC play starting in earnest tonight following a pair of openers Tuesday, league coaches expect a more robust showing from the conference this time around.

This Week in the SEC

TUESDAY’S GAMES

Tennessee 68, LSU 50

Alabama 68, Vanderbilt 63

TODAY’S GAMES (All times Central)

South Carolina at Florida, 6 p.m.

Georgia at Missouri, 7 p.m.

Mississippi State at Kentucky, 7 p.m.

Arkansas at Texas A&M, 8 p.m.

THURSDAY’S GAME

Auburn at Mississippi, 6 p.m.

SATURDAY’S GAMES

Florida at Arkansas, noon

LSU at South Carolina, 12:30 p.m.

Missouri at Auburn, 1 p.m.

Kentucky at Vanderbilt, 2:30 p.m.

Alabama at Georgia, 3 p.m.

Mississippi at Mississippi State, 3 p.m.

Texas A&M at Tennessee, 5 p.m.

TUESDAY, JAN. 14

Georgia at Florida, 6 p.m.

Kentucky at Arkansas, 8 p.m.

“I do think it’s stronger. I do think it’s better,” Missouri Coach Frank Haith said.

“I think overall the league has improved top to bottom,” said Andy Kennedy, whose Ole Miss Rebels won last year’s SEC Tournament and upset No. 4 seed Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament before falling to LaSalle. “I’ve tried to be real candid in saying that when Kentucky is good, our league is viewed as a different type of league, and Kentucky’s good.”

The Wildcats are 10-3 with a key victory over defending national champion Louisville and losses to national powers Michigan State, Baylor and at North Carolina.

Florida (11-2), which is the highest-ranked SEC team at No. 10 in The Associated Press Top 25, has beaten Kansas, Memphis and Florida State, and the Gators’ losses are on the road to Wisconsin and Connecticut.

The latest ESPN power index has five SEC teams in its top 50: No. 8 Kentucky, No. 15 Florida, No. 23 Missouri, No. 25 Arkansas and No. 44 LSU. Tennessee (No. 52) and Ole Miss (No. 56) are in the next 10.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi included six SEC teams in his latest NCAA Tournament projection: Florida as a No. 2 seed, Kentucky (4), Missouri (7), Arkansas (9), LSU (9) and Tennessee (11). The conference has not put more than five teams in the NCAA Tournament since 2008, which also marks Arkansas’ last visit to the tournament.

Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson, whose team plays tonight at Texas A&M, noted the conference has more experience than last season.

“You had the players leaving and a lot of new coaches,” Anderson said. “Now coaches are having the opportunity to bring in players to fit what they’re doing and impact … their program. Look what has taken place here with our guys. We’ve had a couple of recruiting classes and I think things are going in the right direction.

“You can sense [the SEC] is going to be better.”

Only Alabama (6-7) will take a losing record into league play, although the Crimson Tide lost to the likes of Oklahoma, Duke, Wichita State, Xavier and UCLA.

“I know our league has played a very, very difficult nonconference schedule,” Florida Coach Billy Donovan said. “I think the consensus is our league has improved, gotten better.”

The start of league play should ratchet up the intensity, SEC coaches said.

“The bar is raised and conference play brings out a little more excitement and a little more of a fight between both teams,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. “You start league play and you’re seeing across the country that high-flying teams all of a sudden are scoring 60.

“Everybody knows each other a little bit better, and if you’re going to foul they’re going to call it, so you’ve got to play a little straighter up.”

Sports, Pages 19 on 01/08/2014

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