Wiedmer: Is SEC hoops like football?

Wiedmer: Is SEC hoops like football?

December 1st, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Kentucky's Terrence Jones, left, and Tanner Riley go after a loose ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Nov 26, 2011. (AP Photo/ James Crisp)

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

The No. 1 team in the country. Five schools in the Top 25. Multiple national championships over the past six years.

The story of Southeastern Conference football since 2006?


And no, for SEC basketball can claim those same superlatives.

Everyone who's a college football fan down hee-uh in the South knows of the SEC's outrageous gridiron success over the past few years. Assuming there are no surprises inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday evening, top-ranked LSU will outlast No. 14 Georgia in the league's championship game to earn a rematch with No. 2 Alabama in the BCS title game.

That would guarantee the conference a sixth straight national championship, an unparalleled run of success.

But if their basketball counterparts haven't won quite as many national titles the last few years -- Florida's back-to-back crowns in 2006 and 2007 leave the SEC tied with the Atlantic Coast Conference for most titles since 2006 with two apiece -- it nevertheless places it in the conversation.

Especially when you consider that the SEC has also placed four teams in the Final Four since 2006, which is tied with the ACC for second behind the Big East's five participants.

Yet however well the SEC has begun this season -- Kentucky's currently ranked No. 1, followed by No. 10 Florida, No. 12 Alabama, Vandy at 20th and Mississippi State at No. 21 -- the results from this weekend's SEC/Big East Challenge and UK's high noon showdown with visiting North Carolina on Saturday will heavily determine the league's image until March.

Emerge from those games with a winning record and the SEC may actually be worthy of serious hype, especially if the Cats outlast the Tar Heels and the Gators win at No. 3 Syracuse.

Lose more than it wins and the league will again be dismissed as a football conference.

Regardless, it all starts tonight with UK hosting St. John's and Alabama hosting Georgetown in the marquee matchups, followed by Florida at Syracuse and Vandy at Louisville on Friday, with Arkansas at UConn, Pitt at Tennessee and West Virginia at Mississippi State on Saturday.

Yet win or lose against the Big East, the SEC has the look of a league that could send all five of its ranked teams to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 and beyond come March.

Naturally, it starts with UK, which not only has its usual collection of potential NBA first-round draft picks under third-year coach John Calipari, but also has gifted experience in senior Darius Miller (the 2011 SEC tourney MVP), sophomore Terrence Jones (the preseason SEC player of the year) and sophomore guard Doron Lamb.

This bunch has already beaten Kansas by 10, crushed Penn State by nearly 50 and won its first six games by an average of 31 points.

But Florida's seven-point loss at Ohio State a couple of weeks ago suddenly looks a whole lot better in the wake of the Buckeyes' 22-point dismantling of Duke on Tuesday night. Mississippi State has won six in a row since an early 10-point loss to Akron and Alabama just might be the best team in the league, given its dazzling front court duo of JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell and one of the deepest backcourts in the college game.

Then there's UT, which surprised everybody in Maui with close losses to Duke and Memphis, then followed that up with a gritty effort at underappreciated Oakland on Monday night, despite what was surely some serious jet lag following a 20-hour trip home from the islands.

The Vols aren't great, but they're scrappy, they can shoot the 3-ball and they have surprising depth, all qualities that just might land them in the NCAA tourney or assure them a strong NIT run.

All of which brings us to Vanderbilt, which many believed capable of challenging UK at the start of the season before center Festus Ezeli was lost for six weeks with a bum knee and the Commodores dropped home games to Cleveland State and Xavier.

VU still has the depth and talent to go far, but as the Xavier loss proved, Vandy remains vulnerable at point guard for the second straight season. Brad Tinsley's capable, but capable doesn't usually reach the Final Four. If VU is to find its way to New Orleans for the final weekend of the NCAA tourney, its front court will have to be dominant enough to mask Tinsley's shortcomings and keep pressure off outstanding shooting guard John Jenkins.

If that happens, the SEC might have five teams capable of playing for it all on what appears to be a down year nationally outside the Top 10.

If not, the league should at least keep its many football fans somewhat excited until spring practice begins.