SEC basketball bottoming out, analyst says

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 5, 2013 

Kentucky coach John Calipari yelled at his team to execute Wednesday against Eastern Michigan. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
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Southeastern Conference play begins this week. Avert your eyes.

To say the league, as a whole, has been a train wreck so far this season is an insult to derailments. Or as Tommy Lee Jones says as he surveys a train wreck at the beginning of The Fugitive, "My, my, my. What. A. Mess."

We'll get to the dreary numbers in a moment. But first, television analyst Joe Dean Jr., who had watched SEC basketball for 50 years, noted another depressing thought: eight of the SEC's 14 teams are in what he called "building mode."

That observation led Dean to dismiss the easy way to write off the gloomy beginning to the 2012-13 season: These things are cyclical. Inevitably, all leagues have a down year now and again. No big deal.

No one argues about this being a down year. Dean called it perhaps the lowest level of play since the 1960s.

Barely a mention in the top 25 rankings. Historically poor records against other BCS conference schools, ranked teams and all non-conference opponents. Eleven teams with a Ratings Percentage Index outside the top 50 (five outside the top 150).

"I don't see it as cyclical," Dean said. "That's epidemic. Something's wrong."

Crediting former Kentucky athletics director C.M. Newton with originating the idea, Dean called for college basketball to begin its seasons after Jan. 1. A later starting date would largely avoid any conflict with football and give SEC basketball a chance to have the stage to itself.

As is, many fans don't pay as much attention until the SEC race is at about the half-way point, Dean said. First, fans in the Deep South pay attention to the Senior Bowl (Senior Bowl?), he said. Then Speed Week (Daytona 500) and the Super Bowl take precedence.

"The league is dominated by football," Dean said. "Nobody pays attention except in Lexington, Fayetteville and Nashville."

By this reasoning, empty seats in basketball arenas and obsession with football in the South hurt recruiting.

"Players know that," Dean said. "They feel it when they go on a visit during a football weekend or go to a basketball game and see an arena half full."

No sense fighting football. "It's the culture," Dean said.

So work around football by playing basketball in January through April or early May.

Of course, the rest of the country — not to mention television executives — would have to agree.

So, that kills that idea.

The aforementioned dreary numbers include a non-conference winning percentage of .657 going into Friday night's games. That doesn't sound too bad, except it's the lowest such winning percentage since at least 1991-92 (the season the SEC expanded from 10 to 12 teams).

Against teams from BCS conferences, the SEC had a record of 15-33.

The SEC was 3-11 against teams in The Associated Press Top 25 (1-7 against top 10 teams).

Embarrassing losses: Auburn to Winthrop, Georgia to Youngstown State, Mississippi to Indiana State, Mississippi State to Troy and Alabama A&M, Texas A&M to Southern, Vanderbilt to Marist.

Opportunities lost: Kentucky at Louisville, Missouri at UCLA, Florida at Arizona, Tennessee at Georgetown.

"That really hurt the perception of the league," said another TV analyst, Jimmy Dykes.

With league play starting, the SEC faces a self-imposed artificial ceiling. One team beating another in what's perceived as a mediocre league turns few heads on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

"Where are the wins in that league that become quality-résumé wins?" Dykes said.

Dean saw as few as three SEC teams receiving bids to the NCAA Tournament: Florida, Missouri and Kentucky. Dykes added Tennessee, but said, "Four of 14 is not very good."

Dykes labeled Kentucky as an improving team that — along with Virginia Commonwealth — no opponent would enjoy playing in the NCAA Tournament.

"They're not going to be what they were last year," Dykes said of the Cats. "But they're still maybe good enough to get to the Final Four."

On the plus side, the SEC's down year comes at a good time for Kentucky, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. The competition promises not to be as fierce.

"John (Calipari) caught a good year to be below expectation," said Fraschilla, who called the SEC "four quality teams and a whole lot of mediocrity."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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