NASHVILLE — When the Southeastern Conference stumbled last season and received only three NCAA Tournament bids, the league's coaches cited Kentucky's down year. The perception of SEC basketball depended on its flagship program, they said. UK's normally elevated status lifted all the SEC boats. Conversely, Kentucky in a depressed state shrunk the significance of other programs.
As the league gathers here this week for the SEC Tournament, an event Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl called a "festival" on Wednesday, last season's prevailing wisdom has been taken to the hoop and dunked on.
Kentucky comes to the SEC Tournament as the No. 2 team in the country. But UK as a likely No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament hasn't done much for the league.
According to collegerpi.com, the SEC has the fourth-best Ratings Percentage Index, behind the Big 12, Big East and Atlantic Coast conferences.
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The SEC has more teams with an RPI in triple digits (No. 100 Alabama, No. 139 Auburn, No. 143 Arkansas and No. 223 Louisiana State) than in the top 50 (No. 3 Kentucky, No. 14 Tennessee and No. 22 Vanderbilt).
As the SEC Tournament begins with first-round games on Thursday, only three teams can be confident of NCAA Tournament bids: Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.
"It's just hard to explain," Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo said.
Florida Coach Billy Donovan had an explanation: Last season's rationalization about the SEC being down because Kentucky was sub-par was an air ball.
"I don't know if I ever bought into that philosophy," Donovan said.
As Donovan saw it, each SEC team rises and falls on its own merit. If one gains quality victories, its status will rise. And if one stumbles, that NCAA Tournament profile will suffer.
"Talent-wise and as well as they've played, Kentucky has kind of separated themselves," the Florida coach said. "I don't think anybody on the selection committee is saying, 'Wow, Kentucky's really good. The SEC must be great,' "
The premise that the SEC will get only three NCAA Tournament bids rests on results going into the league tournament, Donovan noted. Much can change between now and Selection Sunday.
Florida, Mississippi and Mississippi State are perceived as teams on the metaphorical bubble. For Donovan, it's plausible that one or more could gain an NCAA Tournament bid here this week.
"The league is much better," he said. "At this point in time last year, we really had to do damage in this tournament (to earn a bid). This year, I think we're in the mix. Ole Miss is in the mix. Mississippi State is in the mix."
At No. 53, Florida has the best RPI of the league's three bubble teams. Ole Miss is at No. 56, and Mississippi State is at No. 67.
"I don't know how Florida's considered not solid," Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl said.
Pearl noted the Gators' strong non-conference schedule, which included a victory over Michigan State.
"I think we've got four (NCAA Tournament bids)," Pearl said, "and we're looking for more."
Alabama Coach Anthony Grant suggested that the SEC might be better overall than when he was an assistant on Florida's national championship teams of 2006 and 2007.
"It's a different look," he said. "I do think the league right now ... has a lot more parity than it had maybe four years ago."
As LSU Coach Trent Johnson noted, there's a limit to the parity.
"I think the league's good and it's up because Kentucky's good, because Vanderbilt's good, because Tennessee's good, because Florida is good," he said. "... I think there's probably one team in the league that's not very good right now, and you happen to be talking to him."