When a conference has success in nonleague play, compliments flow freely, even among rival coaches.
By BLAIR KERKHOFF
The Kansas City Star
When the start is slow, as it is in the Southeastern Conference, coaches show camaraderie in other ways.
Some see no evil.
“I’m not watching anybody else’s scores,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Others insist they’re not alone.
“We act like the SEC is the only league that lost games in the nonconference,” South Carolina’s Frank Martin said. “Look at the other leagues around the country.”
Some point to the turnover in talent — a nation’s-best 12 players were selected in last year’s NBA Draft — and coaches.
All add to the conversation. The bottom line is the SEC, which opens conference play Tuesday night when Alabama visits No. 10 Missouri, is the eighth-ranked conference based on RPI. Entering the week, the league stood 9-29 against the RPI top 50. Missouri has three of those triumphs, including the most impressive one when it defeated Illinois.
There also have been some reputation dragging losses such as Mississippi State’s recent home setback to Alabama A&M.
Conference play commencing is good news for the SEC. It’s the first year of an 18-game league schedule, two more games than last year, and that means more opportunities against a competitive schedule.
“Two more high powered teams against you,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said.
The Tigers and Texas A&M played an 18-game schedule in the Big 12 last season, but things were different in that 10-team league. The complete round-robin meant Mizzou and the Aggies played each Big 12 team twice.
In the SEC, teams meet five opponents twice and eight others one time. Mizzou’s home-and-home series are against Mississippi, LSU, Arkansas, Florida and South Carolina. The games against the Gators loom as marquee matchups for the conference. Here are some mid-season conclusions and projections for the second half:
Not much has changed from the preseason projection. The top layer of Kentucky, Florida, Missouri and Tennessee remain the favorites, although the order could be switched. Mizzou is the most accomplished. Something to consider as league play begins: Missouri has two games only against Florida in that top group. Kentucky is home and away with Florida and Tennessee, the Gators with Mizzou and the Wildcats.
Player of the year
Missouri point guard Phil Pressey was the preseason player of the year, and he’s the midseason choice. He is perhaps the nation’s top playmaker and leads the SEC at 7.3 assists and is the Tigers’ go-to player in crunch time.
Pressey and Laurence Bowers from Missouri, Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, Arkansas’ B.J. Young and Florida’s Kenny Boynton get the midseason call. Noel has been all over the court and ranks first or second in the SEC in blocks, steals and rebounds. Bowers and Young are their team’s most reliable scorers. Boynton leads Florida in scoring but his shooting has been erratic lately.
Some others to consider are Mississippi’s Marshall Henderson, who leads the league in scoring at 17.9. Also, Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Auburn’s Frankie Sullivan are carrying heavy loads for their teams.
Several teams have to make a move in league play after an unproductive nonconference season. Missouri, Florida and Kentucky are the locks, and the Tigers, with a good seed, could open NCAA play at the Sprint Center. Tennessee should make it a fourth, but others such as Alabama, Arkansas and LSU must obtain their credentials over the next 2 1/2 months.
To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.