SEC hoops having rare down season


Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 7, 2008 at 10:39 p.m.

We are saved tonight. Saved because it's the start of the SEC basketball season.

Saved from all of the Belmonts and Appalachian States and East Tennessee States and Gardner Webbs.

No, wait. Those are teams that have recorded wins over SEC teams this season.

OK, we're saved because the SEC can't have any more embarrassing non-conference basketball losses. That's the good news. The bad news is that the SEC only has one more chance to record a major non-conference win — Feb. 23 when Tennessee faces Memphis.

Other than that, well, let's put it this way — I'm not sure there will be a lot of national media on hand when Kentucky and Georgia, two teams with RPIs that would make great bowling scores, tip off in Lexington.

This has been a bad pre-conference season for the league that has produced the last two national champions, both of them named Florida.

“We haven't performed as well as other years,” said Kevin Stallings. And his team is one of the few bright spots for the league.

The Commodores are unbeaten and a top 10 RPI team. Tennessee is a top 5 RPI team. Ole Miss is unbeaten and wandering around the top 25.

But the rest of the league may be as bad as we've seen it in awhile.

We suspected it would be a down year for the league and that was before the non-conference schedule where Mississippi's win over Clemson is the crowning achievement (the league is 1-9 vs. Top 25 teams).

The SEC's stumbling through December is reflected in the RPIs of every team not in the state of Tennessee or undefeated.

And since they mostly play each other, it's not like there will be some big jump for these teams as the conference schedule rolls into March.

“It's going to be hard to change RPI much,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan.

It's ugly. Really, don't let your children read any more or they may not want to go to the O'Connell Center this year for games. Too scary.

Take Kentucky. Please.

The once-mighty Wildcats are making good on the notion that the Big Blue faithful wore like a badge of honor the last few years — that Tubby Smith couldn't recruit. Kentucky is 220th in RPI, behind such notables as Elon, Lipscomb and 5-10 Utah Valley State.

Arkansas was picked to win the West this year and the Razorbacks under John Pelphrey have the second-best RPI in the division at No. 57. While that's not getting you into the tournament, it is the fourth-best RPI in the conference.

Seven of the leagues teams have an RPI at 118 (which is Florida) or higher. Way higher.

The SEC is sixth in RPI among the conferences and just barely ahead of the Missouri Valley and Atlantic 10.

All along there has been a feeling that if Florida can go 8-8 in the SEC, the Gators would be in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe, but there had better be some wins over the Tennessee teams.

Heck, beat Kentucky for a sixth straight time and your RPI might actually go down.

There are two questions that need to be answered here and neither one of those answers is going to make an SEC fan any happier that the best football conference in the land is one of the worst basketball conferences in America this year. Or that for the first time in 18 seasons the league might only send three teams dancing.

The first question is easy to answer — why are the RPIs so miserable?

The league's coaches, perhaps anticipating a down year, scheduled as if they all received an extra scholarship for every win. And on the few occasions when a team played a difficult non-conference opponent, it hasn't turned out well.

The non-conference schedules are loaded with home patsies which is why the league is 87-14 at home this year and 12-14 on the road. According to RealTimeRPI.com, the SWAC is one of 12 conferences which has a tougher non-conference schedule this season.

“We haven't had our normal out of conference wins as a conference this year,” Stallings said.

Kentucky has played a difficult non-conference schedule despite bailing on a game with Massachusetts. But the Wildcats are 6-7 with no marquee wins.

Which brings us to the second question — why is the league down?

There are a number of reasons. Cycles come and cycles go, which is why they are called cycles. The league lost a plethora of big-time players from a year ago. We know about Florida losing its top six scorers, but the Gators were not alone.

When you add in all of the players lost to injury (Ronald Steele and Tasmin Mitchell for the season plus Charles Rhodes, Kovortney Barber, Jodie Meeks and Derrick Jasper among those missing time), the suspensions at Georgia plus players who have left teams over lack of playing time (Alex Legion, Rashaad Singleton) and you have a league that is not exactly blowing up with talented players.

The teams at the top of the food chain have the best and most experienced players. The rest have been caught up in a perfect storm that has made the SEC a national afterthought.

But please, enjoy the season.

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