Wiedmer: SEC still getting no respect in hoops

Wiedmer: SEC still getting no respect in hoops

February 16th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

SEC Southeastern Conference

SEC Southeastern Conference

The Southeastern Conference better hope that those folks picking four teams for the new college football playoff will view the SEC far more favorably than those selecting the 68 schools for the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Otherwise, America's historically best football conference might be as red-faced as its hoops coaches are expected to be when the field for March Madness is announced one month from today.

When Missouri outlasted visiting Tennessee 75-70 on Saturday afternoon, the number of SEC schools assured of receiving bids seemed to be only three: No. 3 Florida, No. 14 Kentucky and Mizzou, with the Volunteers still probable but far from certain.

That means no more than four schools from a conference that's won more national titles than any other league in the last 20 years (6) and is third in Final Four appearances during that time, the SEC's 13 trailing only the Atlantic Coast Conference's 15 and Big Ten's 14.

But regardless of that proud history, three to four teams are what most of the experts seem to believe at the moment, their opinions based on both complex formulas -- think BCS computer programs for hoops -- and eye tests, which prompted ESPN's Jay Bilas on Saturday to label many SEC games as "boring."

It's tough to argue with him after watching Kentucky slog past Auburn, 64-56; Tennessee fall to Texas A&M, 57-56; and Vanderbilt survive Mississippi State, 55-49.

But Missouri's last two victories against Arkansas (86-85) and UT were filled with great drama and entertainment. And while we're on the subject of just how weak the league is, let's consider that Auburn, which has won all of four games in conference play, has victories over ACC members Clemson and Boston College and Clemson went into Saturday regarded as a bubble team before its narrow home loss to No. 20 Virginia.

Speaking of Virginia, good as the Cavaliers have been in ACC play (now 12-1), they lost by 35 at Tennessee in late December. Given Auburn's wins over BC and Clemson -- and North Carolina's losses to Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham -- who's to say the ACC isn't overrated and the SEC underrated?

Also consider this: Pittsburgh entered the weekend as a No. 7 seed, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. Yet the Panthers have zero victories against schools expected to make the NCAA tourney.

Now contrast that with Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas. The Razorbacks have beaten Big Ten bubble team Minnesota on a neutral site, as well as knocking off Kentucky and Clemson at home and Vanderbilt on the road.

Tennessee has a neutral win over Xavier, the Virginia rout and a decent loss at undefeated Wichita State. As for Mizzou, the Tigers have a neutral court win over fast-rising West Virginia, a road win at North Carolina State, a home win over UCLA and a neutral-court win over nettlesome Northwestern.

This isn't to say the SEC deserves the same seven or eight spots that the Big Ten or Big 12 seem destined to receive. The league has its flaws. It has its terrible losses, such as Texas A&M losing by 20 to visiting North Texas. Or Alabama falling at South Florida. Or Auburn falling by 19 to Northwestern State.

But every league has its tough moments. It also doesn't help the league that aside from Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Florida, the other 10 schools' fan bases pretty much act as if college basketball begins after bowl season.

And whether fans want to believe it or not, an arena that's half or more empty is always a breeding ground for upsets against inferior foes.

What is crystal clear a month from Selection Sunday is that Florida has a tremendous chance to earn a No. 1 seed, along with Syracuse and Wichita State. After that -- assuming WSU's Shockers aren't shocked the rest of the regular season -- that final No. 1 should come from Kansas, Michigan State and, possibly, Duke, should the Blue Devils make a late push, which includes a home game Saturday against Syracuse.

Teams you don't want to play? How about starting with UConn's Huskies. Banned from the tournament a year ago due to academic shortcomings, the Huskies could be the scariest team expected to make the field, thanks to the backcourt duo of senior Shabazz Napier and junior Ryan Boatright. Napier scored a career-high 34 points and Boatright added 21 in Saturday's overtime win over Memphis.

Anyone getting in a one-possession game against those two in March Madness could be headed home. Just ask Florida's Gators, who lost at UConn early in the year because of their inability to contain those two down the stretch.

Otherwise, assuming Kansas freshman center Joel Embiid recovers from his back and knee issues, pencil in the Jayhawks for the Final Four and the national championship. The Jayhawks didn't need him in Saturday's win over TCU, but his nagging injuries probably cost KU a road win over Kansas State and are the biggest obstacle to the school's postseason dreams.

A lot can change in a month, of course. And when Tennessee hosts Missouri on March 8, the tourney hopes of both the Vols and Tigers could again be in play. Let neither lose between now and then, let the Big Orange win that one and both teams win at least one SEC tourney game and they should both join Florida and Kentucky in the NCAA tourney field.

But moving forward to a sport that this region far more deeply loves, let us all hope that no national voices in November view SEC football as boring. For a college football playoff without the SEC might be reason for the South to again secede.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com