published Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

SEC basketball adds to esteem

League strength in college basketball tends to be gauged by NCAA tournament advancement every March, but the Southeastern Conference produced good reason for chest bumping this past Saturday.

In a pair of nonconference matchups against ranked teams, the SEC pulled a surprise sweep when Arkansas topped No. 20 Michigan 66-64 and Tennessee downed No. 13 Connecticut, the reigning NCAA champ, 60-57.

That both triumphs took place on SEC floors hardly diminished the pride being expressed Monday by conference coaches.

"Because of what has taken place in the last few years, hopefully it got us more exposure," Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson said. "We have some very good teams in our league, and it's not just Kentucky and Florida. I think it's a very competitive league, and it's only going to get better."

The SEC needed little defending in the 15-year stretch from 1993 to 2007, when the league produced five national champions and 12 Final Four teams. Florida won a second consecutive national title in '07, but the SEC took a huge hit in 2009 when only three teams received NCAA tournament bids, with Mississippi State and Tennessee losing in the first round and LSU in the second.

It was the league's worst NCAA tournament showing since 1989, when all five selections lost in the first round.

Kentucky and Tennessee began the SEC's road to recovery two years ago by reaching the Elite Eight. Kentucky and Florida got there last year, with the Wildcats advancing to the Final Four before losing by a point to UConn.

"I think the perception of the league is probably pretty solid," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "We've held our own this season, and I haven't looked at the numbers, but you've got two teams that stepped outside the league and took on two ranked teams and beat them, and they were from two different leagues. I think that can do nothing but help our league."

Kentucky, which took over the top spot in Monday's Associated press poll, is the only SEC team in the top 25 of the Ratings Percentage Index, checking in at fifth. Yet with Alabama 30th, Vanderbilt 31st, Ole Miss 35th, Florida 38th and Mississippi State 39th, the league has half of its teams among the top 40.

Wildcats coach John Calipari believes Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Mississippi State are Sweet 16 teams and that as many as eight SEC members could be under consideration for NCAA play.

"What happens is that we don't promote each other enough," Calipari said. "Part of it is us coaches. We've got to brag about each other's programs. If you lose or win, brag about the other guy.

"This league is as good as any league in the country."

Cats and Dogs

Kentucky visits Georgia tonight in a matchup of one SEC program that can withstand early NBA defections against one that can't. The Bulldogs notched their first 20-win season last year since 2002 before their top two scorers, Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, elected to forgo their senior years and were drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers.

A loss to the Wildcats tonight would leave Georgia 10-10 in Mark Fox's third season.

"We were not in a position to lose as much as we did and not have it cause us some pain," Fox said. "We had two senior front-line players last year [Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes] and lost two more to the draft, and we knew we would have some growing pains. We have a group that is young and not as physical as it will be some day."

Odds and ends

Missouri, which joins the SEC later this year, is No. 2 in the latest AP poll. ... At 12-7, Auburn already has surpassed the victory total of last season's 11-20 team. ... A check of the SEC standings reveals three former East teams -- Kentucky (5-0), Vanderbilt (4-1) and Florida (3-1) -- placing first, second and third, and the other three former East members -- Tennessee (1-3), Georgia (1-4) and South Carolina (0-4) -- placing 10th, 11th and 12th. ... Arkansas is 14-0 this season at Bud Walton Arena.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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