Staying in school

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach John Pelphrey is well aware of the criticism the Southeastern Conference received last season.

Soft nonconference schedules were ridiculed around the nation. Scores of stumbles on the court added to the dismay. By the time the NCAA Tournament field was announced, only three teams took part and one of them - Mississippi State - had to win the SEC Tournament to get in.

But Pelphrey said last week he doesn't believe the struggles will be a recurring trend. Especially after watching so many of the league's best players turn down the chance to play professional basketball this spring.

"With all these guys coming back you've got to believe it's going to be, potentially, the No. 1 league in the country," Pelphrey said.

The 2009 NBA Draft, which will be held Thursday, won't have much SEC flavor after the early entry draft list was finalized and released last Wednesday. But league coaches aren't complaining as the SEC aims to pick itself up after what will be remembered as a dismal season.

One by one, talented players like Kentucky's Patrick Patterson, Tennessee's Tyler Smith, South Carolina's Devan Downey and Dominique Archie, LSU's Tasmin Mitchell, Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado and Arkansas' Michael Washington declared for the draft as underclassmen this spring. But one by one, they said no thanks to the possibility of turning pro, opting to return to their respective schools.

"I think that's great news for the SEC," Mike DeCourcy, a college basketball writer for The Sporting News, said last month after Washington announced his decision to return. "Maybe it's getting through to those guys that (leaving early for the NBA Draft) is not working for them.

"I think that that happening gives the league a chance to get off the deck next year and be back to where we customarily expect them to be."

Not every underclassman will be back. Florida's Nick Calathes, who was the SEC's seventh-leading scorer (17.2 points) signed a professional contract to play in Europe. Ole Miss' David Huertas opted to begin a pro career in Puerto Rico. And the SEC's leading scorer in 2008-09, Kentucky's Jodie Meeks, decided to try his luck in the NBA Draft.

But the damage could've been much, much worse for a league that now has high hopes for 2009-10 because of its returning stars. Eight of the SEC's top 10 scorers in 2008-09 were underclassmen who tested the water. Five of them - Washington, Downey, Mitchell, Patterson and Smith - are returning. In addition, Washington, Patterson and Varnado were three of the SEC's top four rebounders last season.

Washington has not been available for comment since announcing his decision to return. But Varnado explained his reasoning at MSU in May.

"I feel like I wasn't ready for the NBA," Varnado said. "Another year in college can only help my game and I'm really excited about this team. ...

"I think we have a chance to make some noise, and not just in the SEC."

Patterson was the only underclassmen regarded as a surefire, first-round pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. But that risk hadn't stopped players from leaving school to begin professional careers in the past.

Take 2008, for instance, when Mississippi State's Jamont Gordon, Alabama's Richard Hendrix, LSU's Anthony Randolph and Florida's Marreese Speights left as underclassmen. Randolph and Speights were first-round picks. Hendrix fell to the second round. Gordon went undrafted.

Seven SEC players left as underclassmen in 2005. Only one -- former LSU forward Brandon Bass -- was selected in the NBA Draft.

"One of the things that has dragged the SEC in general down has been losing players to the draft who aren't prime prospects," DeCourcy said. "It has really punished the league."

Pelphrey had a pretty good idea the Razorbacks wouldn't be without Washington next season when he declared. The forward wasn't rated as a first-round pick on most draft boards and Pelphrey said Washington communicated with Arkansas about his intentions throughout the process.

In the end, the Razorbacks officially got their big man back, giving Arkansas reason for optimism. Many others did as well, leaving the SEC feeling much better about its talent and prospects for 2009-10.

"Some guys who have been through the wars," Pelphrey said of the players who are returning to school. "Some guys who have a chance to play at the next level. Some guys that are hard working, motivated.

"It's going to do nothing but be really beneficial for our league."

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