BOZICH | Kentucky's slide tied to SEC's basketball rise
Don't overlook the improvement by several SEC programs while trying to understand the slide of the Kentucky basketball team this season.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Everybody has a list of items about what’s wrong with the University of Kentucky basketball team.
Expect to hear the roll call when the seventh-place Wildcats visit Southeastern Conference leader Auburn at 9 Wednesday night. (Repeat that sentence three times without shaking your head.)
Too many freshmen — and not the crackling freshmen John Calipari has typically signed.
Not enough lottery picks — one (at most) for the lottery in the 2018 NBA Draft.
They’re playing for themselves not the team. (Stole that from the coaching staff.)
Not executing what the coaches ask. (Stole that from the players.)
That’s the starter set of explanations.
Make certain you put this item at the top of your list:
The SEC is getting serious about basketball.
Not as serious as the league is about football. But the SEC has gotten so serious about hoops that only the Atlantic Coast Conference is projected to place more teams in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Look at Joe Lunardi’s latest projected bracket. He’s got eight SEC teams in the field.
Last year the league earned five bids.
In 2016 the number was three. In 2016, the league put one team in the Sweet Sixteen.
Those days are over.
With Rick Barnes at Tennessee, Bruce Pearl at Auburn, Mike White at Florida, Cuonzo Martin of improving Missouri and Avery Johnson at Alabama, the SEC has guys who no longer jump when John Calipari crinkles his nose. Calipari is 0-4 against that group this season, with three games to play against them.
You might roll your eyes at Pearl. You should. He could be gone from Auburn after next month, considering one of his assistant coaches has already been forced out and two of his players have been put in the cooler.
But for the final 2-1/2 weeks of the SEC season, Pearl is the frontrunner for SEC coach of the year, winning 10 of 12 league games without those two starters.
Barnes won at George Mason, Providence, Clemson and Texas. He didn’t take the Tennessee job to pad his 401(k).
Look for White’s name on the Hot Sheet list as a guy who could take over a blue-blood program like Louisville, Duke or North Carolina one day. Martin has solid roots in the Missouri/Illinois recruiting sweet spot. He won 20 games six times in nine seasons at Missouri State, Tennessee and California.
Several basketball wise guys have already gone on record predicting Alabama (17-9, 8-5) is a solid sleeper NCAA Tournament pick.
Some final numbers to consider: Compare the Ken Pomeroy power numbers for those five programs from the middle of February in 2016 against the middle of February 2018.
Auburn has jumped from No. 204 to No. 9.
Tennessee has improved from 99 to 13.
Florida has moved from 34 to 16.
Missouri has improved from 177 to 36.
Alabama has jumped from 73 to 42.
Yes, Kentucky has slipped. On Feb. 13 2016 the Wildcats were No. 13 in Pomeroy’s formula. The current team is ranked 34. But give credit to the rest of the league.
Two years ago Pomeroy ranked the SEC the sixth best in the nation. Today, the SEC has climbed past the Big Ten and Pac-12 to fourth. Credit the rest of the SEC for hiring better coaches and recruiting better players.
And they’re not finished.
Even Ole Miss has tired of getting kicked. In 2016, the Rebels opened the newest and one of the nicest facilities in the league. They don’t intend to only fill it for visits by Mississippi State and Kentucky.
Earlier this week, Ole Miss announced they’ve had enough of Andy Kennedy, the winningest coach in the program history. They’ve got to find somebody who can compete with Will Wade at LSU, Ben Howland at Mississippi State, Johnson and Pearl in a push to keep more of the best players from Mississippi in Oxford.
That’s how it works when a league gets serious about basketball — and the SEC is as serious about basketball as it has been in years.
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