Even as March Madness tips off throughout the country, football still looms large in the minds of Southeastern Conference basketball coaches.
The SEC had only three representatives in last year's NCAA tournament, but all three reached the Sweet 16 and two got to the Final Four. The SEC received five invitations to this year's 68-team field, the most since 2011, but attaining respect on the court seems to be a never-ending assignment no matter what the situation.
"People will always refer to us as a football league," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "We're hoping to have major postseason success, but I still don't think it's going to quiet the critics. Kentucky dominated our league this year, so the perception is that it's Kentucky and everybody else.
"Last year, it was Florida and Kentucky and everybody else, but I think you will see our teams do very well like last year."
The SEC's postseason began Tuesday night, with Ole Miss playing in the late NCAA tournament "First Four" game and Alabama and Texas A&M playing late NIT games.
Beginning in 1994, when Arkansas won the NCAA tournament in its third season as an SEC member, there have been six basketball national championships claimed by SEC schools compared to five during that time by both the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conference. Kentucky has won eight national titles through the years and Florida two, while LSU, Georgia and Mississippi State also have experienced the Final Four.
Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Vanderbilt have each made a trip to the Elite Eight as an SEC member, but the league's hoop tradition pales to what it has accomplished in football. In the era of the Bowl Championship Series alone, which spanned from 1998 through 2013, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU and Tennessee combined to produce nine national titles, and the league won seven straight from 2006 to '12.
"I think we should go to Division II in football," Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari joked, "but I'm not sure that's going to happen. We all have to use football to our benefit. We need to use that the SEC is so good in football that we can be good in anything."
Calipari specifically cited the SEC Network, which launched last August. That was just in time for football season, but the first live programming the network provided with regularity was Kentucky's basketball team playing in the Bahamas.
"We need to use this television network," he said. "How do we make this all about these players? Players can come in here and know that wherever they go in the league, they're highlighted and it's about them.
"We've got our own network, and this network is off the chain. We've just got to feed off of football."
Regardless of how SEC teams fare in their respective NCAA and NIT fields, the shadow cast by football in the Deep South isn't going away.
"Our coaches are used to it, and we just set out to prove everybody wrong," Stallings said. "We know we're good, and I think you'll see our group do very well."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.