published Friday, January 8th, 2010

SEC basketball tries to rebound

Audio clip

Kevin Stallings

Three often is considered a crowd, but the Southeastern Conference didn't feel that way last March when just LSU, Mississippi State and Tennessee were selected to the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Not since 1990 had so few league teams been invited, and only LSU wound up advancing past the first round. The Tigers gave eventual national champion North Carolina its toughest test during the second round, but the SEC failed to have a representative in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1989.

Such a subpar showing led to offseason talk of bouncing back in 2009-10, but only Kentucky has provided a convincing response heading into Saturday's start of league play.

"I think it's probably been a little better than medium on the bounce back," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "It seems like a year throughout college basketball where unless you're one of the undefeated teams, everybody it seems like has lost a game that they feel like they shouldn't have lost. I think that you can look through the league, us included, and most of us would tell you that we probably dropped a game that we should have won.

"That leaves a little bit of a negative taste in your mouth, but I think it's been about medium on the bounce back."

SEC teams have fared quite well during in-state rivalry games, as Florida defeated Florida State, Tennessee won at Memphis and Georgia upset No. 20 Georgia Tech.

Yet there have been a slew of stunning setbacks, beginning Nov. 13 when Mississippi State, the defending SEC tournament champion, fell from the nationally ranked after being thumped at home by Rider. Alabama since has lost at home to Cornell, and neither Georgia nor South Carolina could defeat Wofford.

The two teams suffering the most unsightly defeats have been Auburn and Arkansas. Jeff Lebo's Tigers won 24 games last season but have lost to Troy, which had been 0-10 against Auburn, to Central Florida, which had been 0-27 against the SEC, and got waxed by Sam Houston State.

Arkansas lost three straight at one point to Morgan State, East Tennessee State and South Alabama, and the Razorbacks enter league play under water at 7-8.

Florida tallied the league's biggest nonconference victory Nov. 27 by knocking off Michigan State, last year's NCAA runner-up. The Gators, however, also lost to South Alabama at home on Dec. 22.

"Our league has lost a couple of games unexpectedly," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "I don't know how many bad losses there have been. Kentucky has probably exceeded expectations being 15-0."

Ah, Kentucky.

The tradition-rich Wildcats had two forgettable seasons under former coach Billy Gillispie, getting bounced from the first round of the 2008 NCAA tournament as an 11th seed and failing to make the 65-team field last year after 17 straight appearances. Kentucky lost its last four regular-season games a year ago, including a "Senior Night" collapse against Georgia, which led to Gillispie's exit and the hiring of Memphis coach John Calipari.

Calipari's Cats quickly have become the class of the SEC, and the rest of the league isn't complaining. Not after what everyone went through last season.

"They have a lot to do with the perception of our league, whether it's good or bad," Stallings said. "It's good right now, because the perception and the reality is that they're very good, and that helps the overall perception of our league, and that's good for our league."

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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