Tip-Off Optimism: Coaches discuss SEC in a national light

Mississippi State power forward Arnett Moultrie, a 6-foot-11 transfer from UTEP, leads the SEC in rebounding (11.6 rpg) and is fourth in scoring (16.4 ppg). (The Associated Press)

Published: Friday, January 6, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 9:54 p.m.

Last season, the Southeastern Conference came within a missed shot at the end of regulation of sending two teams to the Final Four.


Saturday's SEC openers

■ Florida at Tennessee, 11 a.m., TV: ESPN2
■ Auburn at Vanderbilt, 1:30 p.m., TV: Fox
■ Ole Miss at LSU, 1:30 p.m., TV: WJXT
■ South Carolina at Kentucky, 4 p.m., TV: Fox/WJXT
■ Alabama at Georgia, 7 p.m., TV: FSN
■ Mississippi St. at Arkansas, 9 p.m.

Kentucky returned to the Final Four for the first time since 1998, while Florida suffered a heartbreaking 74-71 overtime loss to Butler in the Elite Eight.

Optimism abounds this season that the league will put together another strong showing in March. The SEC began the season with four teams ranked in the AP Top 25. Three remain — Kentucky (No. 2), Florida (No. 13) and Mississippi State (No. 15).

“I think we have a number of teams that could go deep in the (NCAA) Tournament,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “Plus, there have been some surprise teams that have exceeded expectations.”

Added Alabama coach Anthony Grant: “I've been very impressed with how our league has fared when you look at some of the scores. You never know how things can change, but I expect our league to be strong again this season.”

But the SEC enters league play sixth overall in the Conference Ratings Percentage Index standings. The RPI measures a team's winning percentage against its strength of schedule. The Big Ten leads the nation in Conference RPI, followed by the Big East, Big 12, Mountain West and ACC.

The SEC posted some big wins (Kentucky over North Carolina; Florida and Mississippi State over Arizona; LSU and Vanderbilt over Marquette) and enigmatic losses in non-conference play. Mississippi State had a loss at home against Akron, Vanderbilt lost to Indiana State and the Gators recently lost on the road at unranked Rutgers.

But coaches contend there is enough time between now and March for teams in the league to improve.

“Everybody right now is a work in progress,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

Several newcomers have made an impact, led by Mississippi State power forward Arnett Moultrie, a 6-foot-11 transfer from UTEP, who leads the SEC in rebounding (11.6 rpg) and is fourth in scoring (16.4 ppg).

Vanderbilt, which began the season ranked No. 7 in the country, has gotten off to a disappointing 10-4 start. But the Commodores played the first 12 games of the season without senior starting center Festus Ezeli, who sat out with a knee injury.

“Our objective is to be the best we can be at the end of the season,” Stallings said. “As a coaching staff, we haven't allowed our team to get bogged down in the adversities we've faced. We're looking at what's ahead of us, not behind us.”

Auburn and LSU, two teams that went a combined 7-25 in league play last season, appear on the upswing. Both have won 10 games in non-conference play.

LSU coach Trent Johnson said that depth has helped his team's turnaround this season.

“We have more players spread out now in terms of all classes — freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors,” Johnson said. “All five of our starters have committed defensively, rotating and helping one another.”

Florida is the defending SEC regular-season champion, while Kentucky won the SEC Tournament for the second year in a row last March. Both teams are projected to contend for the league title again this season.

“The toughness of play, the talent level, the coaching level, it's going to elevate for all of us,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I'm going to be interested to see how my young team responds.”

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