|Coaches: Don't count SEC out before March Madness|
|Written by Admin|
|Sunday, 18 January 2009 13:07|
Blame graduations, early defections to the NBA, transfers or injuries. Whatever the reason the SEC's just barely hanging onto a single slot in the Associated Press Top 25 - Tennessee at No. 24.
The Vols split two games, so for the fist time in 20 years the SEC might not have a ranked team when the new poll is released Monday.
That will be reason enough for critics to pile on, denigrating the league where hoops is still regarded as a sideshow to football, despite winning two of the last three national titles.
But it's hard to argue with a conference RPI that puts the SEC seventh, behind leagues such as the Mountain West. It's deserved with losses such as both Alabama and Auburn to Mercer or Kentucky to VMI (111-103). Try Georgia going down at Western Kentucky, and South Carolina falling in overtime at the College of Charleston.
All could result in the first time since the next-to-last poll of 1989 that no SEC team is in the Top 25.
Tough times indeed for a conference that won the 2006 and 2007 national titles, was the only league to have each team ranked in the Top 25 at least once in the last nine seasons and where each has been to the NCAA tournament at least once in the past six.
Even so, SEC coaches suggest detractors enjoy the moment, stressing it won't last.
``There's some envy out there because they can point to a lot more years where we've had the best league in the country,'' Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. ``They probably want to take their shots while they can get them in, and they need to because it's not going to last for long.''
Ranked or not, Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie doesn't buy the claims the SEC is down, not from what he's seen so far.
``The people I've seen play on television in very, very small doses are very good basketball teams, so I think it's going to be a great race,'' he said.
Not along ago Stallings' then 18th-ranked Commodores pulled off their biggest upset of 2008 by beating top-ranked Tennessee only a day after the instate rival reached the No. 1 spot for the first time in school history.
When the teams meet for the rematch Tuesday night, it will be two very different teams.
labama's Richard Hendrix left early for the NBA. Mississippi State, 23-11 last season, lost a trio as Charles Rhodes graduated with Jamont Gordon jumping pro early and Ben Hansbrough transferred to Notre Dame.
At Florida, Billy Donovan lost two starters with Marreese Speights heading to the NBA draft while guard Jai Lucas transferred. Kentucky lost seniors Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley. Injuries are to blame at Mississippi where coach Andy Kennedy has lost three key players to knee injuries.
Donovan has a team stocked with nine underclassmen, a trend in this season's SEC.
``We're a young team. Arkansas is a young team. Vanderbilt is somewhat of a young team. Mississippi State's playing a lot of young guys. There's just a lot of young guys out there. You're starting to see teams get better,'' he said.
Florida won the first of two consecutive national titles in 2006 when Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Taurean Green all were sophomores. Derrick Rose led Memphis to the national title game last April, just like Greg Oden with Ohio State the year before.
Bruce Pearl blames turnover for the state of his Volunteers, who lost five of their top nine scorers from a year ago. The preseason favorites to win the SEC have been the league's highest ranked team, reaching No. 10. But the Vols have lost three of five, with a pair of double-digit losses at home to Gonzaga and Kentucky.
oint, I wouldn't call our season a disappointment,'' Pearl said.
Things are looking up across the conference.
Vanderbilt went into the weekend leading the nation in field goal percentage defense, holding teams to 35.9 percent. Kentucky ranked fifth nationally shooting 50.8 percent. Florida has won 10 straight and Mississippi State five, and who can forget what Georgia last March in running through a tornado-disrupted SEC tournament to its first NCAA berth since 2002.
Trent Johnson, in his first season at LSU, has been impressed by the talent he sees in the SEC.
``Jodie Meeks of Kentucky, find a better two-guard in the country. I mean, 54 points,'' Johnson said of the sophomore's performance at Tennessee last week.
What matters most isn't how many teams find themselves ranked during the season but what happens in the postseason. The SEC could get at least four teams into the NCAA tournament and may get five for a 13th straight year. Donovan said he believes the selection committee will respect what the SEC and its teams have done when the time comes.
He's not alone.
``My thoughts are this and this only: Let's see how weak it is at the end of the year,'' Johnson said. ``Let's see how weak it is when whatever happens in March.''
ntributed to this report.