SEC hoops — Lurking questions

Published: Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 at 12:10 a.m.

The pessimist would say that the Southeastern Conference is going into league play with its worst non-conference record since 1993-94.

The optimist would say that the SEC East division is the toughest in college basketball.

The answer lies somewhere in between. The SEC is not as bad of a basketball conference as it has been in recent seasons, nor is it as good as some projected in the preseason.

“We're going to be fine,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I still think there are going to be five teams, maybe six, that make the (NCAA) Tournament.”

Last season, the SEC put four teams in the NCAA Tournament, all from the SEC East. The division could end up with five teams in the NCAA Tournament this season. Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia all enter conference play in the top 60 in the Ratings Percentage Index, which measures a team's record with its strength of schedule.

“Every game we play is a hard game,” Calipari said. “And then you are talking about playing each team on our side twice. But what happens is our strength of schedule is going to stay really, really high.”

The league has been enigmatic through non-conference play, following big wins with unexplainable losses. Florida and Tennessee, in particular, have suffered stretches of inconsistency. The Gators followed a big win against Kansas State with an overtime loss to Jacksonville. Tennessee beat top-10 ranked teams Pittsburgh and Villanova to start the season 7-0, then followed with recent losses to Oakland, Mich., UNC-Charlotte and College of Charleston.

“We were really guarding well early in the season,” said Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who is suspended for the first eight league games this season for lying to NCAA investigators. “Defensively, we've let our guard down a little bit.”

Injuries also have hurt. Georgia forward Trey Thompkins, the preseason pick for player of the year, suffered a sprained ankle in October that kept him out for the preseason. Thompkins returned the day before the Old Spice Classic Tournament in Orlando, when Georgia suffered back-to-back losses to Notre Dame (in overtime) and Temple.

“The injury he had really came at a terrible time, both for him and our team,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “He's been thrown back into the fire in terms of getting back into a rhythm and getting into game shape.”

While the SEC East has pulled off some big wins, the SEC West has been mired in mediocrity and controversy. Mississippi State, the preseason favorites to win the division, recently booted center Elgin Bailey off the team after he got into a fight with prized big-man recruit Renardo Sidney. The fight was caught on camera in a tournament in Hawaii.

Auburn and LSU are rebuilding. Alabama suffered some disappointing early losses (Seton Hall, Saint Peter's) but has played better of late under second-year coach Anthony Grant. Arkansas has gotten off to a decent start (10-2) despite missing big man Marshawn Powell early this season due to a broken foot and a suspension.

Ole Miss, which plays at Florida on Saturday, has emerged as the favorite to win the division. The Rebels have the best backcourt in the division, led by senior point guard Chris Warren.

Florida coach Billy Donovan pointed to Auburn's recent upset of Florida State as a sign that the SEC West is going into conference play stronger than some people think. Florida swept its six games against the SEC West last season but went 3-7 in the division to finish 9-7 in league play.

“When you don't play well on a particular night, anything can happen,” Donovan said. “I don't think there is any question when you look at the rankings and the RPI, the East clearly is ranked a lot higher. That's probably taking away too much from the SEC West in the fact that there are good teams and good coaches on that side.”

Despite some big early wins, the SEC ranks seventh in conference RPI, behind the Mountain West and Pac 10. But league coaches are confident those numbers will improve by March.

“I think (the league) is strong,” Fox said. “We do have a couple losses like every league does. You can point to that in every conference.”

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