John Clay: Basketball renaissance blooming in the SEC

Rest of league following example of donovan, pearl

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 7, 2010 

Let's face facts: Just a short time ago, SEC basketball was not very good.

It was bad.

How bad?

Buzz Peterson was coaching Tennessee.

That should tell you something.

Nice guy, but come on.

Rod Barnes was having trouble putting points on the board at Ole Miss. After catching lightning in a bottle, John Brady was letting LSU founder. Georgia's Dennis Felton was struggling. Mark Gottfried was throwing up his hands at Alabama, while Jeff Lebo couldn't draw good players or flies at Auburn.

And, lest we forget, Billy Gillispie was the head coach at the SEC's bell cow, Kentucky.

Ouch.

Let us also remember, the SEC cares most about football. The pigskin pays the bills. The pigskin butters the bread. Consider that the conference gives three days to its football media days. In basketball, it's called the SEC Basketball Media Day, as in a single day.

Consider, too, that an SEC team has won the last four BCS national football championships. To be sure, Florida won back-to-back NCAA Tournament titles in 2006-07, but other than LSU in 2006, the conference hasn't had another Final Four entry since Kentucky way back in 1998.

You know, when Tubby Smith was the coach.

This brings us to the Cats. Kentucky now has John Calipari as its coach. Love 'em, hate 'em, Calipari. The Bluegrass is all about the Cal-love. He recruited an amazing freshman class a year ago. The Cats won 35 games, losing just three, making it to the East Region finals before being tripped up by their own youth and, of course, West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone. Five Cats were drafted in the NBA's first round. So all Cal did was go out and sign another outstanding freshman class.

Kentucky will always be very good in basketball.

That's what its fans demand.

But here's the thing this year:

"I think there are six SEC teams that could make the NCAA Tournament," pronounced Calipari at UK's Media Day. "And four of those are in the East."

Even better news: We are on the cusp of an SEC basketball renaissance.

Give part of the credit to a pair of coaches Kentucky fans love to hate. Billy Donovan won those titles at Florida. But it was Tennessee's Bruce Pearl who really got the ball rolling, who raised the bar through promotion, marketing, and, oh yes, signing some pretty good players.

How Pearl got those players, not to mention his truthfulness, are under fire, but you get the point.

Now the rest of the league wants to follow that example. South Carolina hired Darrin Horn to replace Dave Odom. Georgia hired Mark Fox to replace Felton. Alabama hired Anthony Grant to replace Gottfried. Auburn hired Calipari protege Tony Barbee to replace Lebo.

Those are all young, energetic, charismatic coaches. They all know how to promote their sport as well as coach it.

(Even LSU replaced the enigmatic Brady with the solid, no-nonsense Trent Johnson from Stanford.)

No wonder Barbee has already raised the recruiting bar at Auburn. No wonder some think Alabama will challenge Mississippi State in the SEC West. No wonder many on the national scene have pinpointed Georgia as a possible NCAA Tournament sleeper this season.

Even Arkansas, where John Pelphrey has had his problems, is working on a standout recruiting class for 2011. That should not be a surprise. Considering how many good athletes there are in the South, SEC basketball should be good.

You ask, how does this help the Cats?

A rising tide lifts all boats.

In football, they say if you win the SEC you are automatically a national championship contender.

In basketball, maybe someday soon they'll be saying the same thing.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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