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June 29, 2009

Coaches: The SEC Will Be Much-Improved

The numbers were sickening.

The SEC's basketball coaches knew how tough their league was -- they're the ones that had to play in it every day. They knew it was a case where every time your team walked onto the floor, it got punched in the mouth.

But the nation didn't know that, and the SEC suffered because of it.

The all-important barometer for a conference's success, the RPI, treated the SEC last year about as well as the Grim Reaper's been treating celebrities lately. It didn't matter about the infighting among the league's teams for supremacy and likewise didn't matter that the SEC, at the end of the year, had seven of its 12 teams with at least 20 wins and another with 19.

The RPI said the SEC stunk, so the SEC stunk.

The coaches have taken it to heart.

"From the beginning last year, nationally, it was the worst league in the country and now we're the best all of a sudden," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said last week. "Does it help to have a bunch of guys that are really good players come back? Sure it does. It makes your teams better.

"I said it last year and every other coach in our league said it last year, but you all had your mind made up, so it didn't matter. It'd be hard-pressed for me to see that there's a tougher league, top to bottom, and maybe a tougher division in the country, at least arguably, but at the end of the day, you have to go out and prove that."

Horn spoke his piece last week and the rest of the league's coaches chimed in on Monday, when they joined a mid-summer teleconference to update each other on what's been going on. They all had a strong opinion that the maligned SEC will receive much more national recognition in the 2009-10 season.

"We obviously are excited about our team," said Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings, "but a check to that is how good the rest of the league is going to be."

The SEC was like most other conferences at the end of the year -- several underclassmen decided to test the NBA waters and embarked on the information-gathering process. But what the players found out was they would probably be served best by coming back to school.

Some left -- Florida's Nick Calathes and Ole Miss' David Huertas signed professional contracts with overseas teams -- but most returned. When the dust settled, only Kentucky's Jodie Meeks decided to stay in the NBA Draft.

The rest -- LSU's Tasmin Mitchell, Kentucky's Patrick Patterson, Arkansas' Michael Washington, Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado, Tennessee's Tyler Smith and South Carolina's Devan Downey and Dominique Archie -- returned.

"We return a ton of our top-tier talent," said Florida assistant Larry Shyatt, speaking for his boss, Billy Donovan. "We're excited about the SEC and we're excited about getting back to play this fall."

Another factor -- the league's stalwart, Kentucky, is expected to be much, much better. Perhaps a consensus Top 5 squad when the preseason polls are released, the Wildcats have experienced a rebirth without yet holding a practice.

Coach John Calipari, within 90 days of being hired, hauled a recruiting class that some ranked the nation's best with him. Even with Meeks gone, the Wildcats are going to be very good and could make a lot of noise in March.

That perception -- that because Kentucky was down, the league had to be down -- may have hurt the league last year as much as the plummeting RPI. With the Wildcats expected to be a favorite for the national championship, it may benefit the league as a whole.

"That place has always been good," Stallings said. "John's had success every place he's been. I think the perception of our league has suffered at times when Kentucky's been down. From that standpoint, I think the higher-ups would prefer that Kentucky be good."

Each of the coaches spoke of their desire to get through the summer conditioning period and get to practice, simply because the competition is supposed to be so fierce this year that the wait is agonizing. The SEC East alone should be one of the roughest divisions in the country and the entire league is looking forward to a return to prominence -- it wasn't that long ago that an SEC team won back-to-back national titles.

"These things do have a way of ebbing and flowing," Tennessee's Bruce Pearl said. "We understand that the league's stepped up. Knowing that the bar is being raised, we obviously have to raise our game as well."



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