With fast-twitch muscles finely tuned, coaches usually recoil from the suggestion of a subpar season for Southeastern Conference basketball.
But this season's modest November and December apparently softened their resistance.
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"This could be a year of transition," Kevin Stallings of Vanderbilt said on a SEC coaches' teleconference on Thursday.
Pre-conference performances and subsequent pedestrian Ratings Percentage Index create a sobering post-season outlook: potentially fewer NCAA Tournament bids because there will be a lesser chance to improve a team's RPI with high-profile in-league victories.
Tennessee is the only ranked team — barely at No. 25 in this week's coaches' poll -— and the Vols lost at home to unranked Gonzaga on Wednesday. So there appears precious few chances for big boosts from now on as SEC play begins this weekend.
"I guess if the overall RPI is low, then we won't be enhancing our RPI, especially since we'll be beating ourselves up," Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl said.
The SEC ranks sixth among conferences, according to Collgerpi.com.
But Kentucky Coach Billy Gillispie was optimistic.
He cited a ready example: his UK team of last season. Injuries and adjustment to a new coach's system contributed to a 6-7 pre-conference record and Jay Bilas' colorful assessment of the Cats' chances of a NCAA bid: "zero-point-zero."
Then Kentucky put a 100-percent stranglehold on a bid with a 12-4 SEC record and second-place finish in the Eastern Division.
"We were the best-case scenario for it last season," Gillispie said of SEC teams fighting uphill battles for bids this year. "That's what we intend to do and will try to do again. And that's what all conference teams, I'd think, intend to do, as well."
Florida Coach Billy Donovan offered the standard point-counter point to the suggestion of a down year. "I don't think that's the case," he said. "Our league is young."
The young teams include Vanderbilt, which opens SEC play at Kentucky on Saturday.
"We start two freshmen and two sophomores," Stallings said before adding, "We come off the bench with two (or) three freshmen. Other teams are very similar."
Donovan suggested that recent eye-catching victories — most notably, Arkansas beating then-No. 4 Oklahoma and then-No. 7 Texas, plus South Carolina winning at then-No. 19 Baylor — indicated a young league gaining strength through experience. "You're starting to see these teams getting better and better," he said.
Gillispie, who begins his second SEC season this weekend, suggested calculation behind the slow start: a deliberate attempt to gradually improve through the season and then gain a big payoff at tournament time.
"What I've observed is coaches do a fantastic job getting teams prepared to play in conference," he said. "Then when conference comes, they go to a totally different level. ... They probably don't peak out too early, which would be pretty useless."
Gillispie preached such a development curve last season, then guided Kentucky along that path of stumbling start followed by rewarding finish.
But other coaches weren't so sure.
"Our league has continued, at some level, to hold its own," Stallings said before adding, "It's not like it's been in past years, obviously."
The chance of no SEC teams in the national rankings next week stands in stark contrast to recent seasons. Florida won the national championship in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, Tennessee stood atop the national RPI ratings.
Pearl suggested that the lack of a singular power this season could yield a big entertainment payoff: an exciting competitive league race among equals.
"The champion will have more losses than we did last year," he said of the Vols' 14-2 championship record last season. "So it will be very, very exciting."
In the view of Georgia Coach Dennis Felton, as the SEC goes so goes the nation. Domination is fading away.
"A team people held up as invincible just lost at home to an unranked team," he said of then-No. 1 North Carolina's loss to Boston College last weekend. "College basketball continues to evolve. It's difficult for anyone to just dominate.
"Rankings are beginning to mean less and less because there's more and more parity."