Here's a dirty little SECret about how Southeastern Conference basketball can get more respect from around the country: Beat No. 1 Kentucky. The more often the better. That will make people appreciate the league.
For the man in charge with enhancing the perception of SEC basketball, that idea was a conversation stopper.
"I'm not going to respond to that one," Associate Commissioner Mark Whitworth said.
Analysts who watch SEC basketball continue to be confident that Kentucky will not lose a league game.
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"I don't think so," Sean Farnham said matter-of-factly.
Kentucky is that much better than the rest of the league?
"They are," he said
Another ESPN analyst, Jay Williams, agreed. But he suggested those beneficial Kentucky losses are plausible.
"If Arkansas played Kentucky at Arkansas, I think Arkansas would be favored in that ballgame ...," he said. "Kentucky is head over heels over (other SEC) people, talent-wise. But I think the league is overall better. There are teams good enough to compete with Kentucky."
SEC coaches, not exactly an unbiased group, continue to toot their own horns. The SEC is better, they've said. Not exactly a high bar to cross given the record-low three bids to each of the last two NCAA tournaments.
Whitworth cited several numbers that reflect improvement. The SEC ranks fourth among conferences in overall strength of schedule and fifth in conference Rating Percentage Index. That's markedly better than the seven-eight-nine range of last year.
Maybe more importantly, bracketologists include more SEC teams. Joe Lunardi of ESPN had six teams in a bracket he updated Thursday (UK, LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Georgia and Texas A&M). Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com had five SEC teams in his most recent bracket: all of the above except, curiously, Texas A&M.
"That's progress!" Whitworth said.
Of course, there's also reason for pause. Only Kentucky was ranked in The Associated Press top 25 poll last week. Whitworth dismissed the AP poll as "media driven" and irrelevant to the decisions made by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
Another potential problem: Aside from Kentucky, the SEC had a 4-10 record against top 25 teams, none of the victories coming against a team ranked in the top 10 last week.
Compared to the other four so-called power conferences, the SEC had a 22-29 record. Aside from UK, the record is 17-29.
The Big 12 was 25-16 against the other four major conferences. The ACC 25-19. The Big Ten 20-20. The Pac 12 10-18.
Should be mad?
Twice last week, UK Coach John Calipari called for media types to get emotionally involved in what league coaches see as an under-appreciation of SEC basketball.
"Our coaches shouldn't stand for it, and neither should the media that cover us," he said on the Monday teleconference.
After Tuesday's game in Rupp Arena, Georgia Coach Mark Fox voiced anger about how a competitive game against Kentucky gets interpreted as something wrong with UK rather than something right about the opponent.
"I'm glad he got mad," Calipari said when asked for a reaction. "The media should be mad. The people that cover these teams should be mad.
"Unless," he added with a smile, "you cover us, but just don't like us."
Roy Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute (a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla.), noted Jerome Holtzman's famous book about sportswriters titled No Cheering in the Press Box .
"Reporters — I would say especially the hometown reporters — have an obligation not to be neutral or objective in some sort of cold way," Clark said. "But to be scrupulous and honest and candid and skeptical."
Of Calipari's call for media outrage, Clark said, "College coaches are control freaks. And the higher up the ladder they are, the freakier they are. They want coverage on their time and their terms."
As for the SEC being under-appreciated, Clark said, "I think there should be more self-searching than sort of berating media for a lack of enthusiasm."
Calipari did not berate anyone in suggesting media take a personal stake in the betterment of SEC basketball. But should the media advocate for SEC basketball?
"I don't think the media has any responsibility to do that," Clark said.
Buck Ryan, a former head of UK's School of Journalism and now Director of the department's Citizen Kentucky Project, saluted John Calipari's SEC advocacy.
"Coach Cal is the Teddy Roosevelt of SEC coaches," he said. "He's putting the bully in the bully pulpit."
Ryan, who worked 14 years for the Chicago Tribune, termed Calipari's call for media outrage as something of a throwback to an era when reporters got personally involved. Babe Ruth had his own journalist to help enhance his legend.
Objectivity is a more recent standard. "Sports journalists are always swirling around this notion of whether you're objective or you're in the bag for the home team," he said. "It's like the high-wire act of journalism."
As for Calipari's call for media outrage, Ryan said, "It's like being a Buffalo Bills fan complaining 'We don't get enough coverage on ESPN; the Jets get all the coverage,' If I'm a Buffalo Bills fan, I'm not going to waste my time complaining about ESPN's sports judgment."
Like Roy Clark, Ryan put the onus for how SEC basketball is perceived on SEC coaches.
"Don't tell journalists to get angry about it," he said. "Just go back and coach your team and you can get in the rankings. Then it'll take care of itself. Worry about what you can worry about. Don't worry about manipulating the journalists."
UK's many examples to the contrary, we shouldn't take for granted the transition from college standout to NBA player. Even the SEC's leading scorer can find himself spending time in the NBA's Development League as a pro basketball trainee.
That's where you will find former Missouri star Jabari Brown, the leading scorer among SEC players last season with an average of 19.9 points. This season he plays for — love the name — the Los Angeles D-Fenders, a minor league team affiliated with the Lakers. His teammates include former UK player Eloy Vargas and former Mississippi State shot blocker Jarvis Varnado.
On Jan. 10, Brown scored 50 points against the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
Gary Link, the color analyst on radio broadcasts of Missouri games, can't help but wonder if Brown would have been better off returning to the Tigers this season. No doubt, Missouri's team would be better.
"Really good kid," Link said. "Really good guy. ... I wish him nothing but the best."
But Link questions the decision of some underclassmen to enter their names in the NBA Draft.
"I know they're not making a whole helluva lot of money there," he said of the D-League. "And I know most of these kids don't like school. But, c'mon, they're not majoring in physics."
At first, the idea of UK players getting weekly massages seemed a bit much. What next? Palm leaves waved over their heads to ease the heat (psychological and otherwise)?
But upon reflection, maybe massages are not excessive pampering. Other UK teams, most notably track and field, get such hands-on treatment.
David Ridpath, a former Executive Director of the Drake Group (which encourages a balance between college athletics and academics), said he was OK with massages.
"While it might seem excessive, I don't have a huge problem with this," he wrote in an email message. "I think things like this are just a symptom of the problem. The larger issue needs to be fixed and that is the model is broken."
Massages and similar types of therapy are common with aiding in muscle recovery, muscle pains and other issues with athletes who exert high levels of activity. People involved in reform of college athletics say that attempts to improve the physical condition of players is worthwhile given the physical demands on them.
Not for the first time, Ridpath suggested one of two courses:
■ Rein in college athletics and make the games we enjoy only one part of the players' college experience. Or ...
■ Drop the pretense and make college football and men's basketball a minor league for the pros. A college education would be purely optional.
"Trying to do both does not work." Ridpath wrote.
Supporters and skeptics of a shorter shot clock will have a chance in March to see how such change would affect college basketball.
The NIT will experiment with a 30-second shot clock this year, it was announced on Friday.
Of course, men's college basketball has used a 35-second shot clock since the 1993-94 season.
The NCAA, which owns and operates the NIT, hopes a shorter shot clock will speed up pace of play and increase scoring. Skeptics wonder if bad shots would increase and David-versus-Goliath upsets decrease.
The NIT will also serve as a laboratory to experiment with a larger restricted-area arc. A secondary defender cannot establish initial legal guarding position in the restricted area for the purpose of drawing a charge while defending a player who is in control of the ball — either dribbling or shooting — or who has released a pass or shot. When contact occurs within this restricted area under these circumstances, a blocking foul should be called unless the contact is a flagrant foul, the NCAA said in a release.
Stat of the weak
Columnist Phil Mushnick of the New York Post recently noted his "PhilStat of the Week." It had a Kentucky flavor.
Wrote Mushnick: "At halftime of Kentucky-South Carolina — undefeated UK up by 10 — ESPN play-by-player Mark Jones piped, 'Kentucky is 14-0, this year, when leading at the half!'"
Of course, Kentucky was also undefeated when trailing at halftime and tied at halftime.
This led Mushnick to suggest that Jones could have added, "Hey, I just work here."
To John Calipari. The UK coach turns 56 on Tuesday. ... To Ramel Bradley. He turned 30 on Thursday. ... To Winston Bennett. He turns 50 on Monday. ... To Leroy Byrd. He turns 52 on Wednesday. ... To Henry Thomas. He turns 44 on Sunday (today). ... To Andy Dumstorf, forever a footnote as the UK student fired from the sports information staff because he was a Louisville fan. He turns 51 on Wednesday.