With many top players returning, look for SEC basketball upswing

After a year in which only three SEC teams reached the NCAA tournament, the league’s basketball coaches have differing opinions on whether quality of play was down.
They’re unanimous, however, in the belief that it’s moving forward.
“Basketball in the Southeastern Conference is alive and well,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said during a league teleconference for reporters on Monday.
In simulated final rankings, the SEC was sixth in both RPI and strength of schedule, two big criteria used by the selection committee in determining at-large bids to the NCAA tournament.
On Selection Sunday, the SEC received only three bids – Tennessee, LSU and Mississippi State. The likelihood is the league would have received only two teams had MSU not won the SEC tournament and earned the automatic bid.
The three entries are in spite of a year in which eight teams went at least 8-8 in league play, and nine teams won 18 or more regular season games.
“Yeah, last year the league was down, that’s fair,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “But that doesn’t mean SEC basketball was down. The first three years I was in the league, six teams made the tournament. These things have a way of ebbing and flowing. The league is due to cycle up.”
MSU coach Rick Stansbury says the perception of a weak SEC was “totally blown out of proportion” last year.
“Was it not what we all wanted last year, I don’t know, but that wasn’t the reality even though it was the perception,” he said. “Our league was young last year, and that was different, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.”
Arkansas coach John Pelphrey said he sensed the national media piling on, so to speak, about a month into the regular season.
Ironically, Pelphrey’s Razorbacks were the argument for what was good in the SEC at that time. Arkansas went 14-2 in non-conference play including wins against Big 12 opponents Oklahoma and Texas, who were both ranked in the top 10 when they lost to the Razorbacks.
The goodwill and momentum Arkansas established in the non-conference season was lost as it went 2-14 in the league.
“The perception going into last year wasn’t what it ended up being,” Pelphrey said. “Around the end of November and early December, the media really started talking about the league being down. We never got that off us, and we weren’t able to shake it with our play either.”

Challenge for coaches
The perception of the conference was an under current at late May’s spring meetings in Destin when discussion centered more on how to increase the number of teams in the NCAA tournament. Coaches were encouraged to be aware of their non-conference schedules and how they might impact the league overall.
Coaches are quick to point out that in 10 years leading up to last season the league received six bids to the tournament eight times. The SEC received five bids in 2005 and 2007, and Florida won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.
What could help the conference “cycle up,” as Pearl says, is the very thing that most coaches say held it down last year. Young players are older now, and many old players are still around.
Some of that young talent – Howard Thompkins of Georgia, Darius Miller of Kentucky and Terrico White of Ole Miss – will be on display with USA Basketball in the Under 19 World Championships beginning Thursday in New Zealand.
In addition to the youth, a number of the league’s talented veteran players including Tyler Smith of Tennessee, Devan Downey and Dominique Archie of South Carolina and Jarvis Varnado of Mississippi State chose to remain in school after testing their status for the NBA draft.
“Last year the league was so young from top to bottom that we had some growing pains,” Kennedy said. “This year, so many of our marquee players decided to come back, and the league will be stronger because of it.”

Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal