SEC not as daunting in men’s hoops

semerson@macon.comJanuary 8, 2013 

ATHENS -- As the Georgia basketball team managers packed the team bus Tuesday afternoon, head coach Mark Fox sat at a table and talked about what it means to be opening the SEC season.

“League play always feels like a new beginning,” Fox said. “But we don’t ever look at what our non-league record was in how we approach the league season.”

Especially not this season.

Those with only a casual interest in men’s basketball were at least aware that Georgia has struggled with embarrassing home losses and a losing record as it enters SEC play.

So the outlook should be bleak for the Bulldogs, right? Actually, maybe not. The SEC isn’t that good.

Yes, Georgia begins play Wednesday on the road against perhaps the conference’s best team, No. 11 Florida. But only one other SEC team is currently ranked (No. 10 Missouri). The SEC is the nation’s ninth best conference, according to the RPI, ranking below the Mountain West, Missouri Valley and Atlantic 10, according to RealTimeRPI.com.

“When you look at it, a lot of teams have lost a lot of people,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. “Kentucky’s lost a lot. Vanderbilt’s lost a lot. Mississippi State’s got a new coach, South Carolina’s got a new coach. There’s just been a lot of turnover in personnel of key guys.”

Only six SEC teams rank in the top 75 of the RPI rankings. As much as Georgia has struggled, three other teams -- South Carolina, Auburn and Mississippi State -- are ranked lower in the RPI.

“There are a few teams that are like us, that are kind of in a transitional mode,” Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said. “I think that’s part of it. As a whole, I think our league had quite a bit of turnover. That can happen from time to time.”

Stallings then went on to say what a coach in a struggling conference is expected to say: When the NCAA tournament rolls around, the conference will be back to its normal form. Indeed, defending national champion Kentucky might have the most talent and should make a run.

But otherwise, the performance of the SEC in non-conference play hasn’t done much to build confidence. Georgia (6-7) was a part of that, but other teams also had embarrassing losses. Mississippi State, which visits Stegeman Coliseum on Saturday, has an RPI rank of 292 after losses to Troy, Loyola (Illinois) and Alabama A&M. South Carolina, which faces Georgia twice, is 10-3 after against a schedule ranked 346th in Division I. The Gamecocks also lost to Elon. Auburn lost at home to Winthrop, among others. Vanderbilt lost to Marist and Middle Tennessee State, among others.

Then there’s Alabama, which was expected to be good but had a recent 1-5 run, including a home loss to Mercer -- a team Georgia beat.

The SEC went to an 18-game schedule this season, accounting for the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M. When the schedule was being debated during the summer, Fox lobbied for Florida to be his team’s permanent opponent but was overruled. Instead it is South Carolina.

But the Bulldogs still get the Gators twice this season -- in fact, twice in the first five games.

“They’ve got a terrific team. Probably the best Florida team that I think they’ve had,” Fox said. “We’ll have to play well. But it is an exciting time to start league play and play a great team.”

Fox’s position -- or at least his hope -- is that the non-conference schedule prepared his team for the rigors of conference play. Yes, the Bulldogs have three embarrassing losses at home to Youngstown State, Iona and Southern Miss. But they also played well in neutral-site losses to Indiana and UCLA. In fact, Georgia led both those teams at the half.

“Florida’s a great team,” Georgia star guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “But the two teams we played against Indiana and UCLA, we did come out ready to play. Our mindset was (being) ready to win. And we’ve just gotta continue that into the SEC.”

The worry for Georgia is Wednesday night’s opener could stifle the modest momentum the team has built with a four-game win streak.

“It is an opportunity to get some wins,” Caldwell-Pope said. “A lot of teams are young. We’ve just gotta come in with the confidence we’re going to win the game.”

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