As SEC partisans try to make the case that their league is not as bad as some people say, the Georgia Bulldogs are stepping outside the conference to play Clemson tonight at 7:30 in the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C. The game is the last non-conference matchup of the year for any SEC team, so it's the final chance before the NCAA Tournament for the conference to measure itself against an outsider.
So far, those comparisons haven't been favorable for the SEC.
Only two league teams are ranked in the Top 25 – No. 3 Kentucky and No. 16 Alabama. The ACC, Big 12 and Big East each have at least that many ranked in the Top 10. Overall, the SEC is ranked fifth in both the RPI and the Sagarin rankings, behind the ACC, Big 12, Big East and Big Ten.
The most incriminating fact of all is the SEC's out-of-conference record. League teams are 1-13 against non-conference teams ranked in the top 25, including 0-7 against the top 10, this season. The SEC's overall non-conference winning percentage of 73.5 is the lowest it's been since 1996-97.
"I think it's a different league than it's been," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "We've lost some players in the last year or two. If our league is not as strong as it was, then so be it, but I wouldn't play the death knoll here, sound taps or anything."
Odom, in fact, is exhorting his counterparts to fight back against the notion that the league is an also-ran this year. It's the time of year for coaches to start campaigning. In less than a month, the NCAA Selection Committee will decide which teams are invited to the Big Dance, and the SEC currently only has four teams who appear tourney worthy – Kentucky and Florida in the East and Alabama and Mississippi State in the West.
Four teams would be the SEC's worst representation in the tournament since 1996. Last year, six SEC teams went to the NCAAs and another three, including the Bulldogs, went to the National Invitational Tournament.
"I'm not into giving seven or eight bids to certain conferences and reducing ours because I don't think there's that much difference (in the leagues)," Odom said. "I think the SEC once again is one of the strongest conferences in the country, and I think we as coaches have got to start saying that publicly because it is."
Auburn's Jeff Lebo jumped on the bandwagon, saying the SEC got a bad reputation from its slow start.
"If you don't do well as a league early, it really hurts you because you usually don't have a chance to step out (of the league) at this point in the season," he said.
Georgia (7-14, 1-10 SEC) gets that chance today, but the Bulldogs aren't worried about carrying the flag for the conference. They simply are hoping for their first win in seven tries and second since Dec. 28.
"I think we're just caught up in our own battle," Coach Dennis Felton said. "That's certainly all I've been thinking about."
ESPN national analyst Jay Bilas said the SEC still could get five teams in the NCAA Tournament (by adding LSU to the big four), and he pointed out that the ACC hasn't lived up fully to its expectations this year. Many analysts thought at one point that the ACC would get eight teams into the NCAA field, but that isn't going to happen, Bilas said.
"(The ACC) is not as strong as everybody said it was going to be either," he said. "There is still a long way to go. (The SEC) is strong, it's just not as strong. There's a difference there. The SEC has been one of the top two or three leagues in the nation for many years in a row. Just because it's not having a typical year doesn't mean it's not strong."
That's the same point Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury makes. He even went further, saying the league is still the nation's best when judged in its entirety rather than just on its top teams.
"Is our league as good as it has been? Probably not, but it's been dominant over the last few years," he said. "Just because we're not quite as dominant doesn't mean we're not good. One through twelve, we remain the best league the country, maybe not one through four, but one through 12, and that's no different this year than it has been any year."
Everyone agrees about the reason the SEC got off to a bad start and got the corresponding bad reputation.
"A lot of teams got young all at once," Bilas said. "It's nothing unusual to happen at one school. It's just when it happens at a few places, there are problems."
The youth argument, the same one that has been used by the coaches for the last two months, no longer applies, and that's why the league should be given a fresh chance to prove itself, Odom said.
"(The SEC) is not as strong as it has been in other years simply because we have the best freshman class in the country," he said. "By the time you get to March 1, these freshmen are no longer freshmen. They're sophomores, and they are capable of playing at the highest level. That's why we were not as strong in November and not as strong in December, but we're catching up because these young guys are now playing as sophomores.
"If you replayed the non-conference schedule we played in December, you would find entirely different results now, I guarantee you."
ACC vs. SEC War Rages On
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