By Steve Megargee
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. —
The Southeastern Conference figured to take a step backward this season after being home of the national champions and having the most NBA draft picks of any league last year.
Still, few expected the SEC to get knocked around like it has during its nonconference schedule.
“I do think there are some teams going through some transitions just like we are,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “That’s probably made for a little lesser performance in nonconference play.”
That has translated into mounting losses.
SEC teams have gone 3-6 against the Atlantic Coast Conference, 2-5 against the Big 12, 2-4 against the Big Ten, 4-13 against the Big East and 4-5 against the Pac-12. SEC teams also are just 3-11 against the Top 25. Missouri’s 82-73 victory over No. 10 Illinois on Dec. 22 is the SEC’s lone win over a top-10 team in eight attempts.
The SEC’s nonconference performance could mean that going slightly above .500 in conference play may not be enough to reach the NCAA tournament.
Alabama visits No. 10 Missouri on Tuesday in the season’s first conference game.
SEC coaches say it’s too early to panic — or to write the conference off.
Florida’s Billy Donovan believes it’s unfair to base a league’s reputation solely on its November or December performance.
“I never really agreed with that,” Donovan said. “I think teams get better. I think the one thing that’s happened in our league is a lot of teams in our league have lost a lot of people. 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 been a lot of turnover in personnel of key guys.”
Florida guard Kenny Boynton is the lone first-team or second-team all-SEC performer from last season who has played at all this year. The only other 2011-12 all-conference player to return to school was Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon, who is redshirting this season because of an injured left knee.
Each of the top three picks in the 2012 draft came from SEC programs: Kentucky teammates Anthony Davis and Michael-Kidd Gilchrist and Florida guard Bradley Beal. The SEC had 12 players drafted overall. That figure moves up to 15 if you include Missouri teammates Kim English and Marcus Denmon and Texas A&M’s Khris Middleton, who went to college while their schools still belonged to the Big 12.
All those departures have made an impact.
Only two SEC teams are ranked in the Top 25: Missouri and No. 11 Florida. Every school in the conference already has at least two losses. Vanderbilt (6-6), Auburn (6-7), Georgia (5-7) and Mississippi State (5-7) are all at .500 or below.
“If we’re going to start judging teams on who we are in November or December... let’s have the tournament Jan. 1,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “But if the tournament’s going to be in March and April, let the season play out and let coaches do their job.”
Donovan cited last year’s Tennessee team as evidence of how a team can improve over the course of a season. After losing six of its first nine games last year in Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin’s debut season, the Volunteers went 10-6 in conference play.
“You cannot argue that Tennessee in February and March was totally different than Tennessee in November and December,” Donovan said. “I think that’s what you’re going to see inside of our league.”
Tennessee’s 10-6 conference record still wasn’t good enough to reach the NCAA tournament because of its subpar non-conference resume. SEC teams are crossing their fingers that the conference’s poor early-season performance won’t cause problems with the NCAA tournament selection committee this year.
“I think the SEC’s a solid conference no matter what,” Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said. “You’ve still got Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, teams like that. ... If you win those games, that should be enough to get you to the tournament.”
Maybe, but the league will likely have to overcome its unimpressive nonconference play. The SEC had three schools ranked among the nation’s top 15 teams in the preseason: No. 3 Kentucky, No. 10 Florida and No. 15 Missouri.
Not only have SEC schools lost the majority of their games against other major-conference teams, they’ve struggled against teams from traditional one-bid leagues.
Auburn lost to Winthrop. Mississippi State fell to Alabama A&M. Texas A&M couldn’t handle Southern. Youngstown State defeated Georgia. Mercer beat Alabama.
“If you want to say at this point in time, the SEC’s maybe had some difficult, challenging, tough losses... I think that’s a fair assessment,” Donovan said. “But to say the league is down or bad, I don’t think that would be fair until we’ve seen the whole thing play out.”
Not even defending national champion Kentucky has been immune. Kentucky (9-4) already has doubled its loss total from last season as it attempts to replace six draft picks. The Wildcats have won five of six since losing consecutive games to Notre Dame and Baylor.
“We’ve lost some games, but those teams that we’ve lost to haven’t lost many games,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And we weren’t ready — when you’re playing four freshmen — to beat those kind of guys.”
Defending conference tournament champion Vanderbilt has made a steeper decline after losing first-round draft picks John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli plus second-round selection Jeffery Taylor. In its fourth game of the season, Vanderbilt lost 50-33 to Marist, a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference program with a 4-11 record.
Stallings is hopeful his young team will turn the corner. He also believes his conference will bounce back soon. Noting that Florida nearly gave the SEC two Final Four teams last season, Stallings attributed the conference’s early-season struggles to college basketball’s cyclical nature.
“Whether it’s cyclical or transitional or whatever you want to call it, it won’t last long,” Stallings said. “Trust me, it won’t. Our league’s too good for that. Historically, if we have a down year, we never stay down. That’s just not the nature of our league.”
% AP Sports Writers David Brandt in Oxford, Miss., and Gary Graves in Lexington, Ky., contributed to this report.