Pearl: SEC Hoops Worthy Of Increased Respect

Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl talks about the strength of the SEC early in the season and what he sees for the rest of the year.

Auburn, Ala.--The last time the SEC got more than four teams in the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament was 2011 and the league got just three teams in last season, but Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl predicts that is going to change this year. With Kentucky leading the way in the league and college basketball, Pearl believes the rest of the league is following along with improvement from top to bottom.

“It’s funny, when the math is against us, it’s all about the math,” Pearl said in terms of RPI. “And when it’s all about the eye test, it’s all about the math, so I don’t know which is which. All I know is the math’s important. I just know that, for example, Ole Miss is 55 in the RPI, they are sixth in the league right now as far as the RPI. That’s kind of an RPI that usually gets you in. We would take six, wouldn’t we? We’d take five.

“I’ve said from the very beginning of the season that we’d get five,” he added. “So what’s it going to take? It’s going to take five or six teams going based on the math and based on the eye test. What is the eye test? The eye test is Kentucky beating everybody by 40 and they go to overtime against Texas A&M and Ole Miss. Call it what you want. Kentucky is not point shaving they are trying to win games. They are trying to dominate their opponents. They couldn’t dominate two middle of the league SEC teams right now with Texas A&M and Ole Miss. I think we’ve got some math and I think we’ve got some eye test.”

The math and eye test start with Kentucky at the moment. Surviving two overtime games the first week of conference play, and currently 15-0, the Wildcats have the most talent in college basketball and are a lock to be playing in the postseason. Arkansas is on track to join the Wildcats as an NCAA Tournament team. While there are still a lot of games to play, the 13-2 Razorbacks look like the real deal with Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls, two of the most athletic players in college basketball.

After that it’s anybody’s guess with Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators a team that many expect to be there at the end of the year. Despite a struggle in the pre-conference games because of injuries and suspensions, the Gators are 9-6 overall and 2-0 in the league with a win at South Carolina to their credit already. Knowing they need to keep it going to make the postseason, the Gators will be ready Thursday night for the 6 p.m. CST start on ESPN2 when Pearl and the Tigers head to Gainesville.

Coming off a win over Missouri at home, Auburn enters also with a record of 9-6. Fighting to make the postseason in Pearl’s first season on the Plains, the Tigers will be trying to win at one of the toughest environments in college basketball against a team that knows what it needs to do the rest of the way.

“Florida did not have the non-conference record that Billy (Donovan) has had forever because he’s carried the conference in the non-conference because he’s had injuries and he’s had some guys that were out,” Pearl said. “Conference play is probably as important to Florida this year as it’s ever been.

"I think Billy has to be really excited and pleased that the conference went out and did the work that we did with our scheduling and with some of the wins, but mostly with our scheduling. Now he has a chance to make the tournament by beating SEC teams whereas before we used to make the tournament by beating non-conference teams and not getting killed in league play. League play should help our conference get more teams in the tournament.”

With Alabama, LSU, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and several other SEC teams posting quality wins, the league has a chance to make some noise this March. Already with improvement from the middle and bottom of the conference, Pearl sees good days ahead for the Southeastern Conference in basketball once again.

“Looking at this past weekend, there is so much drama already in the league, it just jumps out at you. First thing is there are 12 teams in the league with RPIs inside of 100 [ESPN.com RPI]. Our RPI right now is 87 this morning. That’s really significant, that speaks to the overall strength of the conference.

"The conference, to me, looks stronger top to bottom than any time I was in the league. There were always three or four teams that really struggled, three or four teams that even if you didn’t play well at home you beat them and you could get them on the road, too. It’s just not the case, I don’t think, this year.”

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