John Clay: SEC basketball might be better in March than it looks now

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 11, 2012 

  • Kentucky At Auburn

    When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

    TV: WKYT-27

    Records: UK 15-1 (1-0 SEC); Auburn 10-5 (0-1)

    Series: UK leads 85-17.

    Last meeting: UK won at home 78-54 last season.

    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1, WLAP-AM 630

  • 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.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari said Tuesday that as many as five SEC teams could reach the NCAA's Sweet 16.

Not one, not two, not three, but four, with the suggestion that his second-ranked Cats would fill out the equation.

Just Calipari being Calipari?

Maybe not.

Kentucky travels to Auburn for its first league road tilt Wednesday night. So at his day-before media opportunity, Calipari was asked about the strength of the league.

After all, the SEC was supposed to be stronger this season. Four teams were ranked in the top 19 of the AP pre-season poll. Two of those — Kentucky at No. 2 and Vanderbilt at No. 5 — were in the top five. Mississippi State joined the rankings the second week.

Ah, but then came some reputation-damaging non-conference losses, followed by Florida and Mississippi State falling on the road in their league openers over the weekend.

"I think the league is really good," argued Calipari. "What happens in our league, they do the media-driven stuff that when one league loses games on the road it's a good loss, when we lose on the road, our league, what a bad loss. What? It's hard to win on the road in any league."

And Cal should know. Last year, Calipari's Final Four team finished 2-6 in SEC road games.

"This league, with the top five teams that we have, that are all NCAA Tournament teams, and really," said Calipari, who then paused for dramatic effect.

"I'll make a prediction, other than us, of those five, I would say four of those, without us, will be Sweet 16 teams. How about that?"

How about that, indeed? Five SEC teams in the Sweet 16? That is if you include the second-ranked Cats, of course. That would be more than one-quarter of the entire Sweet 16.

Take Vanderbilt, for instance. The Commodores were without center Festus Ezeli when they lost at home to Cleveland State, Xavier and Indiana State, and on the road (by all of two points) to Louisville.

Now with Ezeli back, the Commodores shipped Marquette in Milwaukee by 17 and crushed Auburn by 30.

"The way they are playing now," Calipari said Tuesday. "Vanderbilt is a top-five team."

Florida has dropped road games at (then No. 3) Ohio State and (now No. 1) Syracuse. The Gators did stub their toes badly at Rutgers, losing in double overtime, and produced a lackluster effort Saturday at Tennessee. But Florida does have talent.

Alabama has been a victim of Anthony Grant's overzealous scheduling. The Tide lost by two at home to Georgetown and by 12 at Dayton, Grant's alma mater. Their other setback was a 13-point loss to Kansas State in Kansas City.

Mississippi State took a bad home loss to Akron early on, then ripped off 11 straight victories before losing by two points to Baylor in Dallas. By the way, Baylor is now ranked fourth.

"The good news is, one team took a spill because their big guy was out," Calipari said of Vanderbilt. "The other team (Florida) took a spill; they had a bad game. You have a bad game, stuff happens. But at the end of the day, they all have the talent to do something special."

Then there's LSU, greatly improved thanks to transfer Justin Hamilton and Kentucky Mr. Basketball Anthony Hickey.

Arkansas, if that 98-88 win over Mississippi State on Saturday is any indication, is finally adapting to new coach Mike Anderson's system.

Bottom line: Sagarin's computer currently ranks the SEC as the nation's fifth-best league, behind the Big Ten, Big 12, Big East and Mountain West, and ahead of the ACC and the Pac-12.

Not great, but not a dead man's float, either.

"It's not an easy league," said Calipari.

That might not be an exaggeration.

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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