As the Southeastern Conference continues what it hopes is a transition to greater basketball relevance, Kentucky remains, well, Kentucky. Other programs bob to the surface as temporary challengers, then soon return to the league’s nether regions. Kentucky is eternal.
This pattern of Kentucky and the (now 13) dwarfs is what the SEC wants to change. League-wide respect nationally is the objective behind tougher nonconference scheduling, the hiring of name coaches and a determination to build a basketball brand.
But, in the short term, little might change.
Joe Dean Jr., a former UK assistant coach who moonlights as a television analyst for SEC games, sees more of the same in the 2016 league season, which begins Saturday.
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“I’ve been watching Kentucky my whole life,” said Dean, who now is athletic director at Birmingham Southern. “They’re always the team to beat. As long as Cal (Coach John Calipari) is there, they’ll always be the team to beat. And they are now.”
Calipari has said repeatedly that Kentucky is not Kentucky this season, at least not the Kentucky that inspired The Wall Street Journal to once liken UK basketball to a “death star” that made resistance futile.
On Dec. 19, Kentucky lost to an Ohio State team with a Ratings Percentage Index outside the top 150. Calipari said future opponents “smelled blood,” the presumption being the Cats were bleeding blue for all the wrong reasons.
Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy, whose team opens SEC play at Kentucky on Saturday, sounded unconvinced.
The task of winning at Kentucky, where Ole Miss has a 2-52 record, won’t be “any less formidable than it’s always been,” he said.
I’ve been watching Kentucky my whole life. They’re always the team to beat. As long as Cal (Coach John Calipari) is there, they’ll always be the team to beat. And they are now.
Joe Dean Jr.
At Media Day in October, players and coaches talked about a resurgence in SEC basketball.
“There won’t be one bad team in this league,” Vanderbilt guard Riley LaChance said. “Every night is a dog fight.”
Mississippi State star freshman Malik Newman all but declared the end of Kentucky’s hegemony.
“Now, it’s not just that one team that everyone is saying, ‘We just can’t wait to see Kentucky play ... ,’” he said. “I think there are several teams in the SEC that people are waiting to see play.”
The pre-conference portion of the schedule has not bolstered this argument. SEC teams had a 6-9 record against opponents ranked in the top 25. Against teams from the other four so-called power conferences, the SEC was 13-29. SEC teams were 8-11 against the ACC, 4-5 against the Big 12, 0-7 against the Big Ten and 1-6 against the Pac 12.
“That needs to be just the other way around,” Dean said of the 13-29 won-lost record.
Kentucky did its part. The Cats were 3-2 against teams in the power conferences: beating Duke, Arizona State and Louisville, while losing to UCLA and Ohio State. That made the rest of the SEC 10-27.
UK was 2-0 against ranked opponents: Duke and Louisville. The rest of the SEC was 4-9.
So while the SEC had the best strength of schedule among power conferences, the modest won-lost record breathed life into Media Day comments about tougher nonconference schedules, by itself, not being enough to enhance the basketball brand.
“Eventually, you’re going to have to win games,” Texas A&M guard Alex Caruso said. “That’s how you prove to everybody” that SEC basketball is good.
Calipari said much the same thing.
“The reason we’ve not had more teams in (the NCAA Tournament) is we lost some bad games in November and December ... ,” the UK coach said. “We’ve got to win games we’re supposed to, and win a couple of the other games.”
On the plus side, seven SEC teams were among the top 50 in RPI at midweek. Ole Miss was No. 60.
Kennedy interpreted this as making for more meaningful SEC games. In the past few seasons, poor RPI numbers made it difficult for SEC teams to improve their postseason profiles by winning league games.
With better RPI numbers, “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for all of us moving forward,” the Ole Miss coach said.
In the preseason, the hiring of name coaches at Alabama (Avery Johnson), Mississippi State (Ben Howland) and Tennessee (Rick Barnes) was trumpeted as an indication of SEC basketball on the rise.
“That brings new excitement throughout the league ... ,” Alabama forward Jimmie Taylor said. “The SEC is known for football, which everyone throughout the nation knows. Even overseas, people know that. But, now, it’s big excitement for basketball.”
Kennedy talked about those coaches bringing “instant credibility” to those programs.
This credibility has not been instant. Counting Mike White at Florida, the SEC’s new coaches were 2-5 against opponents ranked in the top 25 and 3-10 against teams from the power conferences.
“They’re good coaches with below-average teams,” Dean said.
For example, Newman joined a Mississippi State team that had a 13-41 record in league games the previous three seasons.
As for teams that will contend with Kentucky for this season’s championship, Dean cited Vanderbilt (assuming Luke Kornet returns as an effective player after tearing a medial collateral ligament), Texas A&M (2-0 against ranked opponents), unbeaten South Carolina and an undeniably talented, if maddeningly inconsistent, LSU.
“I don’t know if anybody’s going to knock Kentucky off the top rung,” Dean said. “I do think Kentucky is beatable this year. I really do.”
Ole Miss at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Ole Miss 10-2, Kentucky 10-2
Series: Kentucky leads 103-13
Last meeting: Kentucky won 89-86 in overtime on Jan. 6, 2015, in Lexington.