UK Men's Basketball

SEC might not be as bad as it looks

Tennessee's Scotty Hopson went for a shot past Tennessee-Martin's Andres Irarrazabal (25) during the Vols' 68-62 win on Dec. 29. Despite losing four of its last six games, Tennessee got respect from coaches during the SEC teleconference this week.
Tennessee's Scotty Hopson went for a shot past Tennessee-Martin's Andres Irarrazabal (25) during the Vols' 68-62 win on Dec. 29. Despite losing four of its last six games, Tennessee got respect from coaches during the SEC teleconference this week. AP

Even if Southeastern Conference teams win every remaining non-conference game, the league will be saddled with its worst winning percentage against outside competition since 1996-97. And any link to that season cannot be flattering.

That was the year regular-season champion South Carolina lost by 13 to Coppin State in the NCAA Tournament first round. Western Division champion Mississippi lost by 22 to Temple in another of the SEC's four first-round knockouts that year. Only Kentucky advanced, narrowly avoiding a second-round loss to Iowa en route to the national championship game.

So historic stumbling precedes the start of league play this weekend.

Coaches pondered the significance of that, if any, on an SEC teleconference this week.

"Maybe our league just isn't as good, you know," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said. "I hope that isn't the case. But maybe that is the case."

Several eye-catching losses made it difficult to argue with CollegeRPI.com, which gave the SEC the seventh-best Ratings Percentage Index as of Wednesday. That put the SEC between the Pacific-10 and Atlantic 10.

Losses to Saint Peter's (by Alabama), UNC Asheville (Auburn), Samford (Auburn), Campbell (Auburn), Jacksonville (Florida), Nicholls State (LSU), North Texas (LSU), Furman (South Carolina) and Oakland (Tennessee) give the SEC a black eye, bloody nose and cut lip.

"But I don't think that's just an issue with the SEC," said Georgia Coach Mark Fox, whose team opens league play against visiting Kentucky on Saturday. "You can put that on every conference."

After his team lost to Kentucky on Friday, Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said the Wildcats figured to enjoy January and February because of a weakened SEC. By contrast, Pitino said that U of L faced the prospect of a cold, cruel winter in the Big East, which CollegeRPI.com rates as the best conference.

That seemed to touch a nerve with UK Coach John Calipari. Without mentioning Pitino or the Big East, Calipari said he'd stack the SEC Eastern Division double round-robin grind against any league schedule.

"They are not playing teams twice," Calipari said after Kentucky beat Penn on Monday. "They are playing them once. So our 16 games, we have got 10 of them on this half. Think about that."

Calipari predicted that Kentucky's strength of schedule, which CollegeRPI.com rated as the nation's 16th toughest, would remain in the national top 20 when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee judges teams in March.

"Maybe higher," the UK coach said. "On a team that's this young, all freshmen and inexperienced? Yeah, it will be a tough road for us."

When asked to comment on Pitino's dismissal of the SEC, Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight shrugged.

"I feel basketball is basketball," he said after UK beat Penn. "Every team is going to give us their best shot. So it doesn't matter if it's Big East or SEC play. Guys are (in Division I) for a reason."

Fox noted how highly regarded the SEC Eastern Division is. The Georgia coach pointed out that Kentucky (No. 5), Florida (No. 13) and Vanderbilt (No. 15) are among the top-20 RPI programs, according to CollegeRPI.com.

The Atlantic Coast Conference had only one top-20 RPI team: Duke at No. 9, Fox said. The Pacific-10 had only Washington at No. 20.

During his turn on the SEC coaches' teleconference, Calipari shuddered at the league schedule ahead.

"I'm watching Vanderbilt," he said. "I don't want to even think of coaching in the end zone there."

Noting Tennessee's victories over Pittsburgh and Villanova, Calipari said, "They can beat anybody in the country. I don't know what's going on there, but I do know that."

South Carolina Coach Darrin Horn echoed the sentiment about Tennessee despite the Vols losing four of their last six going into a game against Memphis on Wednesday.

"We all know they're capable of being as good as anybody in the country," he said of the Vols.

After beating Penn, Kentucky players spoke of earlier games at North Carolina and Louisville serving as good preparation for the road ahead. At No. 56, Georgia is one of five teams in the SEC Eastern Division with a top-60 RPI.

"We just know what it's like to play with a crowd getting into it," Knight said. "Tuning that out and focusing on what we're doing. How to stay calm. We've been in tough environments."

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