John Clay

SEC men’s basketball has plenty of momentum. Too bad the SEC hasn’t noticed.

Apparently the last group to recognize the sudden rise of SEC men’s basketball just happens to be the SEC.

Bad enough the Goliath that is SEC football gets four days to parade the 14 coaches before the media during its summer media days (plural) while basketball must make do with media day (one), Wednesday’s SEC Tipoff 2017-18 was crammed into an Omni Hotel meeting room barely bigger than a broom closet.

“Wow,” said John Calipari as he slowly made his way through the thicket of media engulfing the small round table for the Kentucky coach’s question-and-answer session. “We busted for a big room, didn’t we.”

Hey, SEC. Apparently you forgot South Carolina actually made the Final Four in last year’s NCAA Tournament while Florida and Kentucky reached the Elite Eight. Or maybe you haven’t noticed the influx of fabulous hoops freshmen on campus at member schools, and not just (surprise) at Kentucky.

Or could it be the SEC powers-that-be are so consumed with the league’s reputation for grid excellence they haven’t realized top young coaches like Mike White at Florida, Bryce Drew at Vanderbilt and Will Wade at LSU have brought a fresh coat of paint to the conference’s formerly tattered roundball reputation.

“I think our league is as good as it has been since I’ve been part of the SEC at 18 years old,” said White, who was a point guard at Ole Miss before trading his player sneakers for a coach’s whistle. “That’s 22 years, I don’t think the SEC has been top to bottom any stronger than it has been right now in basketball.”

SEC coaches have trotted out that sales pitch before. Pumping up the product is the purpose behind these conference media days, to be sure. This time, however, there are results to back up the rhetoric.

“What a lot of those teams did last year, that’s not a fluke,” said Alabama Coach Avery Johnson on Wednesday. “Those teams are well-coached. They do a heck of a job. They have really good players. And this year, I don’t see any reason why we can’t have seven or more teams in the NCAA Tournament.”

Take Missouri, for example. Past few years, every team took Missouri to the woodshed. That’s about to change. Once a mess, now Mizzou boasts the consensus top freshman in the country in Michael Porter Jr., and plenty of hope with new coach Cuonzo Martin, who in his first tour of duty took Tennessee to the Sweet 16.

“Missouri is a problem,” said Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland. “And we play them twice this year.”

Look at LSU, which wasted talent in 2015-16 and struggled mightily under former coach Johnny Jones in 2016-17. Now the Tigers are led by the baby-faced dynamo ex-VCU coach Will Wade, who has already secured a commitment from New Jersey native Nazreon Reid, ranked as the 15th-best recruit in the country by Scout.

In the interest of full disclosure, that dark cloud known as the FBI investigation is hovering over the SEC, mainly at Auburn where assistant coach Chuck Person was one of the four assistant coaches charged in the initial criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York.

That caused the usually loquacious Bruce Pearl to deflect all investigation inquiries on Wednesday, though the Auburn coach made sure he jumped on the league’s basketball-is-better bandwagon.

“Why is everybody so excited about the league this year?” said Pearl. “It’s the depth and breadth of the league. . . . We’ve got 13 or 14 really good teams in the league.”

And what of Kentucky, which was picked by the media (again) to win the league?

“Is Cal still there?” joked Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy. “They’ll be good.”

So should a lot of other SEC men’s basketball teams in 2017-18. Maybe it’s about time the conference office took notice and ordered a bigger room.

SEC basketball preseason media poll

  • 1. Kentucky
  • 2. Florida
  • 3. Texas A&M
  • 4. Alabama
  • 5. Missouri
  • 6. Arkansas
  • 7. Vanderbilt
  • 8. Georgia
  • 9. Auburn
  • 10. Ole Miss
  • 11. South Carolina
  • 12. Mississippi State
  • 13. Tennessee
  • 14. LSU
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