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Once-great SEC has lost its luster when it comes to basketball

TAMPA

Back in the day, Pete Maravich used to play a little ball in this league. Maybe you heard about it.

Once, Shaquille O'Neal worked up a sweat in the name of the SEC. Dominique Wilkins made a few dunks, Rex Chapman hit a few jumpers and Charles Barkley ate a few pizzas. A good time was had by all.

Ah, yes. Back when the world was young, the SEC used to be something to see.

No offense, guys. But, gee, what happened?

All at once, it seems as if the air has gone out of the ball in the Southeastern Conference. Yes, it is still a deep league. Yes, it is still a competitive league. This week in Tampa, it even promises to be a dramatic league.

This year, at least, it can no longer be described as a great league.

Welcome to the What-Went-Wrong Basketball Tournament, an event where a dozen SEC teams will gather at the St. Pete Times Forum to chase last chances. If one or two of them can alter perceptions along the way, particularly among the NCAA selectors, that would be good, too.

It has been a difficult season in the SEC. Only two years removed from Florida's back-to-back national championships, the league has suffered embarrassing losses, and two coaches have been replaced, and those in charge of the rankings have pointed their thumbs downward at the entire league. Perhaps most important, the marquee teams in the league, the teams that are expected to be good, haven't been good enough.

In most seasons, there would be a team, maybe two, in the Top 10. This year, there are none. Most years, there are three teams, maybe four, in the Top 25. This year, there is only LSU at No. 16. Most years, five or six teams would reach the NCAA Tournament. This year, who knows? Two? Three?

No team in the SEC has a better RPI than 38. And after having a first or a second seed in 18 of the previous 19 seasons, it is difficult to imagine an SEC having better than a No. 4 this year.

"We don't have a team that is in the upper echelon," admits Florida coach Billy Donovan. "The perception is that we don't have anyone who has done what Pitt or North Carolina or Louisville has done."

So what in the name of Adolph Rupp has gone wrong?

Oh, there are some who will tell you that nothing, absolutely nothing, has happened except for the critics who keep saying the league has taken a dip. Georgia interim coach Pete Herrmann says he still thinks "five or six" SEC teams will make the tournament.

Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, too, disagrees that the conference has been less than normal no matter what the rankings say.

"I don't think it's down at all," Gillispie said. "I think that once postseason begins and we get outside our league, I think you'll probably see that the SEC teams will do very well."

Of course, it is understandable Gillispie feels that way, because if you start to list the reasons the SEC is down, it begins with Kentucky not being Kentucky. Historically, Kentucky is the royalty of SEC basketball. This year, the Wildcats are considering going to the NIT, for goodness' sake. After all of those years of making the NCAAs, no one was sure Kentucky even remembered there was such a thing as the NIT.

If Kentucky had been better, if Florida or Tennessee had been more consistent, then perhaps the perception of the SEC would be better. Perhaps.

Of course, the SEC has only itself to blame when it comes to perceptions. Remember Kentucky losing to VMI? Remember Missouri State beating Arkansas and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi beating Georgia and Illinois-Chicago beating Vandy? Remember Utah beating Ole Miss and LSU? Remember Mercer beating Auburn and Alabama? Odds are, the voters still do.

Things happen. Basketball can be a cyclical sport. Arkansas coach John Pelphrey talks about how much talent the league lost last year. There is truth to that. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy talks about how young the league is. There is truth to that, too.

"We're not as strong at the top," Pelphrey said. "But I think this year is a blip. The future is as bright as ever."

And perhaps that is true, too.

Donovan remembered another year when the critics suggested the league was down.

That was 2006, the year Florida won the first of two titles and LSU made the Final Four.

"After that, the perception was that the league wasn't that bad," Donovan said.

Once-great SEC has lost its luster when it comes to basketball 03/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 11:15am]
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