SEC basketball off to sluggish start to season

USC opens league play against Mississippi State and Auburn

pobley@thestate.comJanuary 8, 2013 

William Mary Vanderbilt Basketball

Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings watches as guard Kyle Fuller (11) looks for an open teammate in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against William & Mary, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn. Vanderbilt won 64-50. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

MARK HUMPHREY — ASSOCIATED PRESS

— The national champions have lost every significant game they have played this season. The only team that has a truly marquee win is one of the newcomers.

The SEC, one of the nation’s power basketball conferences, is looking anything but as conference play commences.

As USC visits Mississippi State on Wednesday, the Gamecocks’ conference finds itself at something of a seasonal crossroads. Due to its lackluster nonconference performance, a winning record in league play might not be enough to earn a NCAA tournament bid.

The SEC went 3-11 against top-25 teams, with the only top-10 win being Missouri’s victory against No. 10 Illinois on Dec. 22.

As dominant as the SEC was over the ACC in football, the rival league has returned the favor in hoops, owning a 6-3 mark against the SEC. Worse, the Big East won 13 of 17 meetings with SEC opponents.

Kentucky was the poster child for the SEC’s non-conference woes. After a promising season-opening win against Maryland, the Wildcats lost in quick succession to Duke, Notre Dame and, most alarmingly, Baylor at home. Then came the recent 80-77 setback against rival Louisville just before January.

“We weren’t ready, when you’re playing four freshmen, to beat those kind of guys,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.

Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose team lost at then-No. 8 Arizona and then-No. 25 Kansas State in Kansas City, said it was too early to fret about the league’s strength. He pointed to massive roster turnover and several coaching changes as reasons for the sluggish start.

“Kentucky has lost a lot. Vanderbilt has lost a lot. Mississippi State has a new coach. South Carolina’s got a new coach,” Donovan said. “There’s been a lot of turnover in personnel and key guys.”

That explains the slow start league-wide but does not change the fact that rallying in league play might not be enough to salvage a season. A good example of that is Tennessee’s 10-6 campaign a season ago.

Under new coach Cuonzo Martin, the Volunteers got out to a very slow start. By the end of the league’s regular season, however, Donovan said Tennessee was as good as any team in the SEC.

“You cannot argue that Tennessee in February and march was totally different than Tennessee in November and December,” Donovan said.

Still, the Vols didn’t earn a bid.

For USC, its 10-3 mark was constructed against a schedule that ranked No. 345 in the nation at the end of Monday’s games. The Gamecocks own no wins over teams with an RPI better than 150.

Despite that, USC will open the conference season against two teams rated worse in the RPI – Mississippi State and Auburn. With just one game each against Kentucky and Florida and tossup home-and-home dates with Vanderbilt and Georgia, a Gamecocks team that continues to gradually improve could finish with a better-than-expected league mark.

For his part, USC coach Frank Martin said the season is long and he intimated Tennessee’s snub a season ago was a mistake.

“If we’re going to start judging teams on who we are in November or December, let’s have the tournament on Jan. 1,” Martin said. “But if the tournament is going to be in March and April, let the season play out and let coaches do their job.”

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