Mark Wiedmer: SEC basketball down but not out of title talk

Mark Wiedmer: SEC basketball down but not out of title talk

January 23rd, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

SEC Southeastern Conference

Whenever some haughty national media type - are you listening, Digger Phelps? - has bashed the quality of Southeastern Conference basketball in recent years, I've merely pointed to the three NCAA titles the league has won since 2006 and said, "Top that."

Because no league can. America's Cockiest Conference -- the ACC -- has won two championships (North Carolina in 2009, Duke in 2010), the Big 12 has won one (Kansas, 2008), and the Big East also has one (UConn, 2011).

Everyone else -- Big Ten, where have you been? -- has zero. But not the SEC. After watching Florida go back-to-back in 2006 and '07, Kentucky followed up its 2011 Final Four appearance by winning it all last April in New Orleans.

Those achievements may not match the league's seven straight football titles, but it's still the most NCAA titles won over the last seven years.

And in case you want to look at a bigger picture, since 1994 the SEC has six championships -- one more than the ACC, two in front of the Big East and at least four ahead of everyone else in the past 19 years.

Alas, there is little to defend the league this winter as we begin the final seven weeks of the regular season. Not only are only three SEC schools in this week's Top 25 Associated Press poll -- Florida (8), Missouri (22) and Ole Miss (23) -- but no one else even received a vote this week, including UK.

But the cause for concern come NCAA tourney Selection Sunday on March 17th doesn't end there.

ESPN Brack-Daddy Joe Lunardi has only four SEC schools earning invitations among 68 total schools, the defending national champion Wildcats joining the ranked trio.

And while Ole Miss stands 15-2 as it awaits Thursday's visit from Tennessee, Lunardi projects the Rebels as only a No. 8 seed in his most recent bracket. That's what losing to Middle Tennessee (65-62) and Indiana State (87-85 in overtime) will do to your tourney resume.

Yet as much as the league has suffered some of its most embarrassing losses ever -- Alabama to Mercer and Tulane; Mississippi State to Troy and Alabama A&M; Texas A&M to Southern -- there also have been good results.

Tennessee beat Wichita State and lost by one at Georgetown. Florida has crushed Wisconsin, Marquette and Florida State. Auburn has also beaten FSU. Missouri whipped Illinois and VCU and lost in overtime at UCLA.

So just how good or bad is the league? Does it really deserve to have half its 14 schools ranked below 100 in the latest RPI figures, including Auburn (202), South Carolina (234) and Mississippi State (243) below 200?

Is there any way for more than four SEC schools to crash the Big Dance? And of those four -- assuming Kentucky gets in, which isn't certain at this point -- can any reach the Final Four or win it all? Beyond that, if the league is down, why?

First, it seems highly unlikely at the moment that the league could get more than four schools into the Big Dance unless another team got hot enough to win the SEC tourney in Nashville and claim the conference's automatic bid.

Second, Kentucky, Florida and Missouri have -- at times -- looked capable of reaching the Final Four, though only the Gators are consistently playing at that level. Billy Donovan's veteran-laden team is performing at such a high standard -- demolishing Missouri by 30 last weekend -- that it now looks like a probable Final Four squad, rather than a possible one.

It isn't much of a reach to envision Donovan cutting down his third set of nets inside Atlanta's Georgia Dome on the final Monday night of the season.

As for Ole Miss, the Rebels are going as far as guard Marshall Henderson's ridiculously quick shot takes them. He may be a jerk (see Patrick Brown's focal on him elsewhere in this section), but he's arguably the league's MVP at this point, his boorish behavior notwithstanding.

Regarding the rest of the league, patience is in order. New coaches at LSU, Mississippi State and South Carolina will have better programs a year from now. Vanderbilt and Arkansas are rebuilding. Welcoming a stunning recruiting class next season, Kentucky could be preseason No. 1

Let Jarnell Stokes ignore the NBA draft (he should) and Jeronne Maymon return healthy and Tennessee could be the most improved team in the league.

Even then, things could get better rather than worse the rest of this season.

"Let's see where we are at the end of the year," Kentucky coach John Calipari said about the league a couple of weeks ago.

Mostly, let's see where Florida is at the end of the tournament. If the Gators are back on top, the SEC will own four of the last eight titles. Not bad for a conference most folks think is currently the worst of all the BCS leagues.