KEITH TAYLOR: Southeastern Conference Getting Pretty Wild in Basketball
The Southeastern Conference race has never been tighter or better for that matter.
Going into the final nine days of the regular-season, six teams — including Kentucky — are in a tie for third place in the current conference standings. The Wildcats have three games remaining, including two straight home games, to finish out the season. Kentucky hosts Missouri Saturday, Feb. 24 and then plays Ole Miss Wednesday, before the season finale on March 3 at Florida.
“There’s no break in the schedule,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “When you look, I’ll say it again, eight or nine teams should be getting into the NCAA Tournament. Eight or nine teams. When we beat each other, it should be good. It should be good for everybody. Because of how everybody is playing, no easy wins.”
No matter what happens over the course of the next week, at least eight teams should get a bid to the Big Dance, no matter what happens in the conference tournament in St. Louis. Auburn, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Florida and Alabama should be among the teams in the 68-team field.
The Wildcats have endured an usual bumpy ride in the conference, which should be expected considering the team’s youth. Following a rare four-game skid, Kentucky has won two straight (Alabama and Arkansas) going into this weekend’s showdown against the Tigers.
“This league has never been stronger, and this is my 42nd year or whatever it is,” Calipari said. “This is the strongest, by far, this league has ever been. We have the fifth – I’m going to guess the fifth, maybe it’s even higher; it might be the fourth or the third – strength of schedule with all freshmen. So, we’ve thrown everything at these kids, and it’s all experiences."
Although a regular-season title is out of range, Kentucky can still earn a bye in the Southeastern Conference Tournament by finishing in one of the top four spots in the conference, which would give the Wildcats a much-needed dose of momentum going into the postseason.
Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus thinks the league is stronger because of the improvement among the teams and players.
“I think there are really good players, you know, one through eight, one through nine on each team,” Justus said. “That’s impressive to me. I think it's experience as well. I think you have some guys that have been through the battles of the SEC. And the league has just improved each year. So then those players are getting better. And then flip that back, I think those guys get better by playing against good players, similar to what we talk about here. So I think that is the No. 1 reason why the league is better: the players. The players are what make anybody go.”
Credit the coaches, too. Bruce Pearl has made Auburn a perennial contender, while Rick Barnes has taken Tennessee to the next level and Ben Howland has enjoyed similar success at Mississippi State.
“This is in no disrespect to anyone that was here when I got here but I think you’ve got some really good coaches that have come into the league in the last couple years, and I think that is head coaches and assistant coaches. I think you look across the benches in this league and, you know, are very similar to ours,” Justus said. “You have a guy like Kenny Payne who is an assistant coach here. You have a guy like (ex-Auburn boss) Tony Barbee that is on our staff that has been through the entire walk of college basketball. I think you can find that, maybe not as good as the staff that we have, in my opinion, with those two guys especially, but, you know, across the benches in our league I think you have some very, very good coaches.”
An improved SEC has made the other teams contenders and elevated the league to the next level, which should make for an exciting postseason.
Keith Taylor is a veteran and award-winning sports writer based in Richmond, Ky. He has been covering University of Kentucky athletics for daily newspapers and web-site publications for the past 25 years. Taylor currently is sports editor for Kentucky Today and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.