UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: After another lackluster start, what is wrong with men's basketball in the SEC?

Missouri's Keith Shamburger watched the final minute from in front of his bench during a 69-61 loss to Missouri-Kansas City last month.
Missouri's Keith Shamburger watched the final minute from in front of his bench during a 69-61 loss to Missouri-Kansas City last month. AP

The question on the floor this morning is basic: Why is SEC men's basketball so meh?

Obviously, the top team in the Southeastern Conference — fielded by a local university — looks pretty strong. However, through Thursday (Dec. 18), would you like to guess which Power Five conference had the worst winning percentage in games against other major-conference teams?

In 39 such contests against foes from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 as well as the SEC, Southeastern Conference teams had won 14. That is a winning percentage of 35.9. Take out Kentucky's victories over Kansas, Texas and North Carolina and the rest of the SEC was 11-25 against P-5 foes.

By way of comparison, the Big 12 was 21-11 (65.6 percent), the ACC 22-14 (61.1) and the Big Ten was just below .500 at 17-18. Only the Pac-12, 8-14 for 36.3 percent, was close to as futile against high-level competition as the SEC had been.

This year's tepid SEC beginning — which is not helped by league pillar Florida's 0-4 start against Power Five foes — is merely a continuation of the recent downward trend line for men's hoops in the league.

From 1995 through 2008, the Southeastern Conference sent at least five teams to the NCAA Tournament every season but one. In the 10-year stretch of 1999-2008, the SEC received six Big Dance invitations eight times.

However, in the six NCAA Tournaments since 2009, the SEC has gotten only three teams into the tourney in three different years, including each of the past two. In two of the other years in this stretch, the league had only four tourney teams.

At a time when Southeastern Conference athletics departments are rolling in resources, there is no excuse not to have greater depth of quality teams in men's basketball.

The conventional excuse you hear for SEC hoops futility is the league's obsessive football mania leads to rampant basketball indifference.

The pigskin is clearly the number one sport at every SEC school other than Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Yet how is that different than in the 1980s, when future NBA standouts such as Charles Barkley (Auburn), Chuck Person (Auburn), Dominique Wilkins (Georgia), Vern Fleming (Georgia), Jeff Malone (Mississippi State) and Dale Ellis (Tennessee) dotted the league's non-Kentucky hoops programs?

"It's recruiting," says Larry Conley, the former Kentucky forward and long-time TV color analyst for college basketball. "If you are asking why the league is not like it was in the 1980s, when you had Barkley and Dominique and guys like that spread around, it's a recruiting issue."

One area where the SEC was not as bad as I expected so far this season was in the "horrible loss" department. Through Thursday, the league had 16 defeats to teams from outside the major conferences. That includes some real clunkers — Mississippi's home loss to Charleston Southern, Mississippi State falling to Arkansas State and Missouri to Missouri-Kansas City.

However, most of the SEC's non-Power Five defeats came against quality programs such as Xavier, Wichita State and VCU.

(Interestingly, of the five major leagues, the ACC had the most non-Power Five losses through Dec. 18 with 20 — and that does not include Eastern Kentucky's shocking 72-44 hammering of No. 18 Miami on Friday night).

Conley said he believes there are several SEC teams that will look better come March than they do right now.

"I think Florida will still end up winning 23, 24 games," he said of Billy Donovan's Gators. "You know Billy will pull them together and I think their talent level merits high hopes."

Conley expects LSU and Arkansas to be viable NCAA tourney teams. "I think LSU has talent," he said. "I think you will see them get stronger as the season goes, and that win they had at West Virginia (74-73 Dec. 4) was a very good win in terms of team development.

"Arkansas is the same situation. I think they have a better club than they had last year. But, for whatever reason, they have so much trouble winning on the road. That's the big question that hangs over them, will they ever learn to (consistently) win on the road? But I like that team."

With No. 1 Kentucky, that's four potentially quality teams out of a league of 14.

For a league the magnitude of the SEC, that is not a very impressive quality ratio.