NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Florida senior Kasey Hill had no trouble rattling off what might be Kentucky’s starting lineup this season, even though three of them are freshmen. Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox, Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis and Bam Adebayo were on the tip of Hill’s tongue Wednesday at SEC Media Day.
And what about Texas A&M, which shared the regular-season league title with the Wildcats last season?
“I know the big guy,” he said, referring to Aggies star Tyler Davis. “That’s probably about it.”
And there, in a nutshell, is the problem for SEC basketball. The long-running perception that the league is just Kentucky and then everybody else …
“It’s not the perception,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “It’s the reality. The reality is that we have not been able to get enough teams in the NCAA Tournament.”
The 14-team SEC had just three teams invited last year – the third time that’s happened in the last four years – and hasn’t had more than five teams in the dance since 2008.
“The league is better now than when I was at Tennessee, but it’s not better at the top of the league,” Pearl said, “and that’s how leagues are always judged: how good you are at the top. Kentucky’s always going to be Kentucky, but when Billy (Donovan) was at Florida, they were always there. When I was at Tennessee, we were always there.”
But Pearl, who at one point had the Volunteers ranked No. 1, left the Volunteers under NCAA sanctions in 2011 and is in Year 3 of an arduous rebuild at Auburn. Donovan, who led the Gators to four Final Fours and two national titles, is coaching in the NBA.
“We need a couple more programs to step up on a national level for the league to be what it needs to be,” Pearl said. “The top of our league, we’ve got to have separation. Will it be Texas A&M? Will it be Florida? Will it be Georgia?”
The Gators, Aggies and Bulldogs were picked second, third and fourth behind Kentucky in Wednesday’s preseason SEC media poll. But their coaches and players spent a good chunk of the afternoon answering questions about the Wildcats.
“They’ve been the standard bearer the last few years. They’ve been as good as anybody in the country, so we all know what we’re shooting for,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “Kentucky’s had a great team, but we need to have a lot of great teams. The reality is, as we start this year, we think there’s great depth in the league.”
Now the SEC needs teams like South Carolina, which won 25 games last season but didn’t make the NCAA Tournament because of a late fade and lack of impressive non-conference wins, to finally break through. The question, though, is whether the Kentucky juggernaut, which swallows up all light that might shine on other teams in the league, actually hurts that effort.
“It’s our job to elevate our program,” Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said. “When I got to South Carolina, we weren’t even in the same book as Kentucky. I think we’re now in Chapter 15 in the book. We’re trying to get where we can be in the same paragraph.
“It’s not my job to bring them down. It’s my job to build our program to where we can be in the conversation with the University of Kentucky.”
The SEC office is doing its part to help, intervening to improve strength of schedule across the board and hiring former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese – who oversaw that league’s rise to basketball prominence – as a hoops consultant. Coaches sang the praises of that hire Wednesday and also pointed to recent high-level coaching hires around the league, improvements in facilities and a recruiting uptick as reasons to believe in a breakthrough.
“I think the league’s closer than the outside perception is,” said second-year Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, who led Texas to a Final Four. “I think we’re there. I think we’re in a position that we can turn that this year, and I’ll be shocked if we don’t.”
Per usual, Calipari did his part, talking up the conference and saying he sees the necessary commitment to basketball for it to succeed.
“The level of coaching in this league, whew,” Kentucky’s coach said. “You may have leagues with more veteran coaches than we have, but the level of coaching is outstanding.”
But if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it …
See, there’s a reason Florida’s Hill knew all the important names on the Wildcats’ roster – and not any others. Because at least for now, the SEC is still Kentucky and then everybody else.
“You want to play Kentucky. It’s Kentucky,” he said. “You go into those games more hyped. It shouldn’t be that way, but it often ends up being that way.”
MORE FROM SEC MEDIA DAY
- Humphries on his ailing knee and a UK team in which he can’t find a flaw.
- John Calipari holds court, raves about his team (again) at SEC Media Day.
- South Carolina’s Frank Martin says Kentucky’s success is a good thing, not bad.
- But Auburn’s Bruce Pearl says the rest of the league needs to rise up for SEC rep.
- Alabama’s Avery Johnson talks (indirectly) about battle with UK for 5-star Petty.