SEC struggles to justify major conference reputation

Saturday, January 15th 2005, 12:39 pm
By: News On 6

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ At least the Southeastern Conference has Kentucky.

If not for the Wildcats' win over Louisville, the SEC would have no victories in 14 games against ranked non-conference opponents.

But a 1-13 record isn't anything to brag about. Neither is ranking sixth in the most recent conference RPI, just ahead of the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference.

The SEC has had six teams in the NCAA tournament each of the past six seasons, but keeping that streak alive could be difficult as SEC teams struggle against smaller schools.

Consider that Auburn got beat at home by Wofford, or that Tennessee lost to Chattanooga for the first time since 1925, or that Georgia got beat by Stetson _ an Atlantic Sun team with a losing record.

SEC coaches say an unusually large number of young players is partly to blame.

``I know a lot of it is made with the RPI, and you look at our strength of schedule as a league and maybe it's not where it's been in years past,'' Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

``I think all the teams in the SEC are going to be better teams in February than maybe they are in December or January. The reason I say that is because you've got a lot of teams relying on a lot of young players.''

The league trails the Atlantic Coast, Pac-10, Big Ten, Big East and Big 12 conferences in the most recent Rating Percentage Index, which is used to help seed and choose at-large teams for the NCAA tournament.

There are six SEC teams _ Kentucky, Mississippi State, Alabama, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Arkansas _ ranked in the top 50 of the RPI.

But none of the remaining six teams are ranked higher than 66th (Florida), all ranking below teams like Arkansas-Little Rock, Hawaii and Vermont.

Two SEC teams _ Georgia and Auburn _ were expected to have early troubles.

The Bulldogs have only seven scholarship players, no seniors and a junior who is a walk-on. Coach Dennis Felton is having to pick up after his successor Jim Harrick was ousted when academic fraud was uncovered. Nearly every member of Harrick's last recruiting class transferred.

``We knew we were going to have some struggles in terms of winning before we got to a point where we could win consistently,'' Felton said.

Auburn fired Cliff Ellis, and four of the Tigers' starters a year ago also left. Coach Jeff Lebo is making do with a small team of mainly guards.

Georgia's 56-52 loss to Stetson was one of the biggest upsets in the SEC this season. The Atlantic Sun member had not beaten an SEC team since a win over Florida in 1983.

Florida is still working its way back from last season's plummet. The Gators were ranked No. 1 last December after upsetting Arizona, but they fell out of the poll in February.

Their non-conference slate included losses to Miami and Florida State, and now leading scorer Matt Walsh is out with an ankle injury.

Kentucky, the SEC's perennial favorite, hasn't had any huge stumbles, but the Wildcats dropped non-conference games to North Carolina and Kansas. The SEC's lone win over a ranked team outside the SEC was Kentucky's 60-58 victory at Louisville on Dec. 18.

Mississippi State, which appears to be Kentucky's major challenger in the league this season, lost its ranked matchups with Syracuse and Arizona.

SEC coaches aren't ready to write off the conference so early in the season.

``We haven't had the big non-conference wins that we've had in some other years in November and December, but I don't think there's any question this is still one of the top three or four basketball conferences in the country this year,'' said Alabama coach Mark Gottfried, whose team lost to Washington and Wisconsin.

Some SEC teams can't use youth as an excuse. Half the teams returned at least four starters.

Tennessee didn't lose any starters, but has still stumbled early this season, with out-of-conference losses to New Mexico, Nebraska, Texas and North Carolina.

One of the biggest surprises so far may be Vanderbilt, which was picked to finish last in the SEC East after losing last year's leading scorer Matt Freije and reaching the regional semifinals. The Commodores opened their SEC slate with double-digit wins over Alabama and Tennessee.

``These guys went to the Sweet 16 and that is valuable, very valuable experience,'' Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson said. ``They may be better this year than they were last year.''

The same can't be said yet for the rest of the SEC.