As the Southeastern Conference begins league play later this week, it’s clear that lifting the league’s basketball profile is not a task that fits this go-go age of Netflix, texting and ever-increasing forms of I-want-it-right-now.
Patience, a virtue that seems as quaint as a hand-written letter, is required.
In the non-conference portion of the schedule, the SEC had a 4-16 record against ranked teams (1-5 against top 10 teams). Without Kentucky, those won-loss records shrink to 2-14 and 0-4.
The SEC fared a bit better, but only a bit better, against its peers. League teams had a collective record of 14-30 (.318 winning percentage) against the ACC, the Big East, the Big 12, the Big Ten and Pacific 12. That’s the worse winning percentage of any conference in this top-shelf intramural competition. The Big East and Big 12 led the way (.600) followed by ACC (.569), Big Ten (.475) and Pac 12 (.438).
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“Those are certainly numbers that are not flattering,” said Dan Leibovitz, the SEC Associate Commissioner assigned to men’s basketball.
Like his predecessor, Lexington native Mark Whitworth, Leibovitz took comfort in the Ratings Percentage Index. Five SEC teams are in the top 40: No. 5 Florida, No. 10 Kentucky, No. 20 Arkansas, No. 30 South Carolina and No. 33 Ole Miss.
(Of course, UK begins league play Thursday at Ole Miss.)
In terms of top 40 RPI teams, the SEC is on par with the Pac 12, Big Ten and Big 12, all of which also have five teams. The Big East has six. The Atlantic Coast Conference’s nine supports the widely-held contention that it is the best league this season.
In making the case for patience, Leibovitz said the SEC is the youngest conference in the country in terms of returning minutes played last season. It’s also fuzzy-cheeked in terms of coaches in place and building programs. Five of the league’s 14 coaches are in their first or second seasons at their schools.
“It’s not an excuse,” Leibovitz said. “It’s a fact.
“This is big-time basketball. The other teams are not going to feel sorry for our young teams or give them extra timeouts.”
From watching as many games as he can, Leibovitz said he saw SEC as competitive despite the unflattering numbers.
“From Kentucky, which is super talented and super young, on down … there are a lot of people out there being relied on to carry teams,” he said. “Coach (John) Chaney used to say, ‘Everybody wants to win, but very few people know how to win.’ What’s the right shot in the last two minutes? Who should shoot it? When’s a good time to speed it up? When’s a good time to slow it down?
“I see a lot of good basketball. Down the stretch, we’ve got to be a little bit better. And that comes with time.”
Only two SEC teams were ranked in The Associated Press top 25 poll last week: No. 6 Kentucky and No. 22 South Carolina. Of course, the league would be better if more of its teams were ranked, Leibovitz said.
The sight of empty seats during telecasts of home games for SEC teams remains a problem. “Never something you want to see,” Leibovitz said.
On the plus side, the SEC has met its goal of toughening pre-conference schedules, Leibovitz said. There’s only a smattering of “bad” losses: Missouri to Davidson, North Carolina Central and Eastern Illinois; Mississippi State to Central Florida, Lehigh and East Tennessee State; Vanderbilt to Bucknell, and Tennessee to Chattanooga.
Leibovitz has his eye on the SEC-Big 12 Challenge on Jan. 28. “An important day,” he said. “Great matchups. Great opportunities there for our teams to make statements.”
Of course, UK plays Kansas in Rupp Arena that day. Other games in the Challenge are Arkansas at Oklahoma State, Auburn at TCU, now-No. 25 Florida at Oklahoma, Texas at Georgia, LSU at Texas Tech, Baylor at Ole Miss, Kansas State at Tennessee, Texas A&M at West Virginia and Iowa State at Vanderbilt.
Jerry Palm, a bracketologist with CBSSports.com, offers encouragement. He has six SEC teams in his mock bracket for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Of course, the league was embarrassed by getting only three bids in three of the last four NCAA tournaments.
“Makes me feel very optimistic,” Leibovitz said of Palm’s projections. “I hope Jerry is right.”
To realize a time when SEC basketball is respected nationwide is to peer at a more distance vista. Leibovitz echoed something said earlier this year by Mike Tranghese, the former Big East commissioner hired as a consultant to help the SEC raise its profile.
“I know there are things we can do as a conference office to augment what we’re already doing,” Leibovitz said. “At the end of the day, when it happens, it’s going to be about coaching hires. …
“That’s going to be far more important than anything Mike Tranghese or I could ever do.”
No. 8 Kentucky at Ole Miss
8 p.m. Thursday (ESPN2)
The SEC so far
A look at each team’s record during the non-conference portion of the season:
South Carolina 9-2
No. 25 Florida 9-3
Ole Miss 9-3
Mississippi St. 8-3
Texas A&M 8-3