published Thursday, January 9th, 2014

SEC basketball showing signs of bounce back

After placing just three teams in the 2013 NCAA basketball tournament, the Southeastern Conference had nowhere to go but up.

That ascension is well under way.

The SEC opened the conference portion of its season Tuesday night with Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and LSU ranked among the top 25 of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). A season ago, only Florida entered league play in the top 25.

"It was a very young league last year when you look at it," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said this week. "You had a lot of players that had left and a lot of new coaches coming in. Now the coaches have had the opportunity to bring in players who fit what they're doing to impact each and every one of their programs.

"With our guys, we've had a couple of recruiting classes, and now things are going in the right direction. It's the same thing at Tennessee with Cuonzo [Martin]. It takes some time."

Embarrassing losses in November and December were down significantly from a season ago, when four SEC teams were outside the RPI's top 200 when conference play began. Now, only Georgia is outside the top 200.

Kentucky's lack of success in nonconference play last season, as well as the 16-point quarterfinal loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament, kept the Wildcats from the NCAA's 68-team field. They have dropped marquee games this season to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina but also topped defending national champion Louisville, 73-66, on Dec. 28.

"The thing that happened in that game was that we played as a team better," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "We still had breakdowns and gave them a chance to come back and win the game, which they should not have had, and it was based on what we did. What you have is a team that's trying to figure out how we do this together.

"This is the youngest team I've ever coached, and I've coached young teams, but this team's habits basketball-wise have been far worse than the other teams that I've had. They are great kids, but they just have bad basketball habits."

The Wildcats entered Wednesday night's league opener against Mississippi State led in scoring by four freshmen -- forward Julius Randle (18.1), guard Aaron Harrison (14.7), forward James Young (13.8) and guard Andrew Harrison (11.2).

Florida knocked off Kansas, Florida State and Memphis in the nonconference with a much more experienced bunch. The Gators entered Wednesday's league opener against South Carolina with three seniors -- forward Casey Prather (17.3), guard Scottie Wilbekin (11.8) and center Patric Young (10.8) -- averaging more than 10 points a game.

"I still think we can get better," Gators coach Billy Donovan said. "We started out this season with very limited depth. We went to Wisconsin with seven guys and played a game without both point guards. We've had to do some different things, and I think the break around the holiday has helped us."

Entering this week, the SEC had six teams in the projected NCAA bracket by ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi. Florida is a projected 2 seed, with Kentucky seeded 4th, Missouri 7th, LSU 9th, Arkansas 11th and Tennessee 11th.

Losing 12 players, including eight first-rounders, in the 2012 draft, and it showed during the league's 2012-13 season. The league lost just five players to last year's draft, and that is showing now.

"You could sense that it was going to be better, and I think we're in for a great race in this league," Anderson said. "I think you'll see some teams beat up on each other and some scores that will shock you. The key is being consistent with what you do."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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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