published Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

SEC victim of low esteem

  • photo
    Kentucky coach John Calipari reacts to his team's play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

John Calipari has had his most disappointing season as Kentucky's basketball coach.

He was even worse as a prognosticator.

In a teleconference of SEC coaches last summer, Calipari expressed his excitement about a league that was adding Missouri and Texas A&M. A few weeks earlier, he had guided the Wildcats to the league's first national championship since Florida won titles in 2006 and '07.

"Think about what happens now," Calipari said. "We start moving up a notch. I think that seven teams in our league, or half of our league is going to be in the NCAA tournament. That's what I believe, and I think that will be from here on in."

But only Florida (26-7), Missouri (23-10) and Ole Miss (26-8) from the SEC received invitations to this year's 68-team field. The three selections match the lowest for the league since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and it's the second such occurrence in five years.

It's also the second time in five years Kentucky is headed to the National Invitation Tournament, with the Wildcats (21-11) traveling for their opening matchup tonight at Robert Morris since Rupp Arena is prepping for an NCAA site.

"We were hoping to limp into the NCAA tournament," Calipari said Monday. "We beat Florida and Missouri at the end of the year, but that wasn't to be. If we had beaten Vanderbilt [in Friday's SEC tournament quarterfinals] and didn't get in, I would have been very upset and very vocal.

"By losing to Vandy, we put it in the committee's hands, and they made a choice. All those [NCAA bubble] teams were about the same, and they didn't choose us."

Kentucky is joined in the NIT by Alabama (21-12) and Tennessee (20-12), with LSU (19-12) and Arkansas (19-13) getting snubbed by that tournament. Florida coach Billy Donovan used "surprised" Monday when asked about the league's three NCAA bids, while Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin used "unfortunate" and then "disrespectful" given the caliber of coaching and talent.

Three primary factors led to the league's three NCAA bids, with the first being last June's NBA draft. The SEC produced the top three picks with Kentucky's Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Florida's Bradley Beal, and it cranked out nine of the first 31 selections.

Kentucky lost six players to the draft, while Vanderbilt lost three.

"We're losing players to the [pro] league, which is a good thing," Calipari said, "but it's a bad thing as far as trying to rebuild quickly."

Then the league sustained two significant injuries.

Kentucky still had an excellent shot of making this year's tournament until 6-foot-10 freshman Nerlens Noel was lost for the season on Feb. 12. Noel had 106 blocked shots in 24 games, including 12 in a win at Ole Miss.

Tennessee likely would have been an NCAA certainty had 6-7, 260-pound forward Jeronne Maymon not been forced to take a medical redshirt in January as a result of setbacks following meniscus surgery last March. Maymon averaged 12.7 points and a team-leading 8.1 rebounds last season as a junior.

"I definitely think that personnel played a major factor," Donovan said. "We were fortunate to absorb some injuries, and we didn't have anything like Nerlens' situation. When you take Noel off Kentucky's team, it changes their team. Going into the year, I thought Tennessee was the best team, but then Maymon was out, and he's a really, really good player."

Finally, the SEC never could shake a dreadful November and December.

Alabama lost to Mercer. Vanderbilt lost to Marist. Georgia lost to Youngstown State, and Mississippi State lost to Alabama A&M. The SEC entered January's head-to-head play with two teams in the RPI top 50 and four below the top 200.

"Every time you read something or looked at something, it said the SEC was down and that it was a bad year," Alabama's Anthony Grant said. "We lost some games in December that I know really hurt us and probably hurt the perception of our league. That perception becomes reality, and by the end of it, there was talk the SEC would only get two or three teams."

Said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy: "Last year was a banner year for the SEC, but we had the most players taken in the NBA draft, and with that comes a little bit of transition. We had a lot of new coaches and some new programs, but SEC basketball will be fine moving forward."

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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