ATHENS -- In recent years, SEC men’s basketball coaches tried valiantly to prop up their conference, mainly through brand name, history and hope.
It’s different this year. When the SEC held its first coaches teleconference of the season Monday, the participants actually had facts and numbers.
“If you take into consideration our records, the wins that we have, it’s the No. 1 strength of schedule as a conference across the board, it’s No. 3 RPI . . . our league’s good,” South Carolina’s Frank Martin said. “I can care less what the popular opinion is.”
The old cliche is that a rising tide lifts all boats, but in the case of SEC basketball, the success of Kentucky (and sometimes Florida) have not been enough to rescue what has been a mediocre conference.
This year, however, most of the rest of the conference is catching up. As SEC play begins, the conference is collectively in the best position in years.
There are five SEC teams in the RPI top 50, and 10 in the top 100, according to CBSsports.com. Kentucky is No. 1, followed by Georgia (21), Arkansas (35) and LSU (36).
ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi had five SEC teams in his bracket, including Georgia at No. 10. Jerry Palm of CBSsports.com also has Georgia at No. 10, and has four SEC teams in. Palm leaves out South Carolina, but Lunardi has the Gamecocks in.
“I think when it’s all said and done, you’re going to see quite a few of our teams be in postseason play,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said.
This is happening without the help of struggling Florida, which was a preseason top 10 team but enters SEC play 7-6 and all the way down at 142 in the RPI.
The improved numbers have come via good wins (Georgia over Seton Hall, South Carolina over Iowa State and Oklahoma State, Mississippi over Cincinnati, etc.) but also smarter scheduling. Georgia head coach Mark Fox said one of the messages from the SEC office was to schedule home games against mid-major teams that projected to between 150-250 in the RPI. Games against lower-rated teams didn’t help.
“Everybody in our league enters play with better numbers, from an RPI standpoint and strength of schedule standpoint,” Fox said.
Basically, this is good for teams like Georgia, which is hoping to earn its first NCAA bid in four years. If anything, SEC play will aid teams’ RPI ranks, and help their NCAA resumes: There are more opportunities for quality wins, and without as many bad teams, not as many chances for bad losses.
The downside, however, is the wins will be harder to come by. Georgia opens this week by hosting Arkansas on Tuesday night, then going to LSU, two tough matchups.
“Last year, we won 12 SEC games,” Fox said. “I don’t think you’ll have to win 12 to get into the NCAA tournament this year, based on the strength of the league, and what we did in the non-conference. But wins are gonna be harder to get, because there’s a lot of really good teams.”
Georgia (9-3) enters on a six-game winning streak, including wins over Seton Hall, Colorado and Kansas State.
Now here comes the SEC gauntlet, which for once really is that, as the numbers can attest.
Georgia gets Kentucky twice, as well as South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. Luckily for the Bulldogs, they’re also in better position this year to survive it.
“This time last year, obviously we were still trying to find ourselves,” senior forward Marcus Thornton said. “This year, we kind of an idea of who we are, but feel like we can keep getting better.”