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SEC endures a slump on the basketball court

11:58 AM, Jan 8, 2013   |    comments
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By Jeff Lockridge | The Tennessean

Florida's Billy Donovan, the dean of SEC men's basketball coaches, isn't ready to say the league is "down and bad" until the season has played out.

However, the records, rankings and lip-curling losses are saying plenty about the SEC's slipping status.

"There's just been a lot of turnover in personnel of key guys," Donovan said on the SEC teleconference Monday. "And when you all of a sudden now start to thrust new guys into new roles against pretty good teams -- or just OK teams -- you're always going to be vulnerable to come up with a loss. So what ends up happening is you get labeled in November and December as the league's not very good, the league's down, the league does not have a strong reputation.

"If you want to say up until this point in time the SEC has had some difficult, challenging, tough losses, I think that's a fair assessment."

That's a gentle way of putting it. The numbers are more abrasive.

RealTimeRPI.com, which lists a Ratings Percentage Index (success coupled with strength of schedule) for conferences, had the SEC ninth to start this week behind the Atlantic-10 and Missouri Valley.

Only two SEC teams were in Monday's Associated Press top 25 poll: No. 10 Missouri and No. 11 Florida. Defending national champion Kentucky was receiving votes. That's it.

The RPI is uglier. Just the two teams are in the top 50. Four of the league's 14 teams are ranked 200 or worse.

The SEC has 19 losses to teams outside the top 100 and five to teams outside the top 200 -- Vanderbilt losing to Marist, Auburn losing to Winthrop, South Carolina losing to Clemson and Mississippi State losing to Troy and Alabama A&M.

So it's no surprise the SEC's nonconference struggles are among the worst in decades. The league had a .731 win percentage last season when SEC play began. Even with the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M, which have helped the cause with 21 wins, the league's winning percentage has dropped to .670 this season.

"There are a few teams that are like us that are kind of in a transitional mode," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose Commodores host Kentucky at 8 p.m. Thursday on ESPN. "Whether you want to call it cyclical or transitional or whatever you want to call it, it won't last long. Our league is too good for that."

There is no denying the transition. The SEC supplied the first three players taken in the 2012 NBA draft, nine of the first 31 and 15 of the 60 overall (including Missouri and Texas A&M).

New coaches were appointed at LSU, Mississippi State and South Carolina this year. Four more coaches, including Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin, are in their second seasons. Essentially, half the league's teams are still putting a blueprint in place.

In the meantime, it's made basketball difficult for SEC fans to stomach the past two months. Tennessee and Vanderbilt have been held to less than 50 points a combined six times and less than 40 three times.

"We act like the SEC is the only league in the country that lost games in the nonconference slate," said South Carolina coach Frank Martin, who added that the one-and-done rule is the chief reason for parity in college basketball. "A lot of the lower and mid-major schools, they have kids that stay three, four, five years. So there's a situation sometimes in November where you have a team full of freshmen playing against a team full of seniors. That's a problem.

"If we're going to start judging teams on who we are in November and December, I'm all for it. Let's have the (NCAA) Tournament Jan. 1. But if the tournament is going to be in March and April, let the season play out. ... For us to be talking about this on Jan. 7, I think it's a waste of time."

Donovan pointed to Tennessee's late surge and 10 SEC wins last season as a reason why early losses shouldn't be weighed too heavily. But the NCAA Tournament committee didn't share his opinion.

"I really don't (worry about it)," said Cuonzo Martin, whose team plays Ole Miss on Wednesday. "You can't sit back and watch and say, 'Well, I hope this team wins. I hope they win.' Obviously in the preseason (nonconference play), you want to see the SEC do well.

"But you also have a transition of so many new coaches, and that's not any easy thing to do. ... It just doesn't happen overnight regardless of the personnel you have left over.

"Nobody wants to hear that part, but there is an adjustment period."

Reach Jeff Lockridge at 615-259-8023 or jlockridge@tennessean.com.

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