SEC not single toughest in college hoops

By By Stan Torgerson
March 21, 2002
The SEC's problem is that it believes its own publicity.
Every coach in the league says the Southeastern Conference is the toughest basketball league in the country. The media goes along with them. Sports writers echo the party line. Broadcasters use the phrase at least once in every broadcast. The public listens or reads and believes.
If the SEC is the best, the hardest to win, the most competitive, the residence of the best basketball players, top to bottom, playing the game today how do you explain the way it fell on its collective face this year.
Mississippi State, the SEC tournament champion, out. Alabama with the best overall record in the regular season and a number two seed by the NCAA selection committee, out. Ole Miss, a game and gallant group of defensive specialists which defeated soundly two top 10 teams, Florida and Alabama during the regular season, out. Georgia, co-champion of the Eastern Division, out. Florida, at one time rated the second best team in the nation, out.
Only those old veterans of NCAA Tournament play, Kentucky, held our flag highand who knows for how long?
The truth is there is no "best league in the country." There are a lot of good teams, one here, one there, several in one league, several others in another. But there is no league that consistently is the best. The selection committee still buys the premise of league superiority. That's why the SEC had six teams in the tournament. We beat our chests, let out a Tarzan call and get respect out of the natives in the basketball jungle.
We haven't been the best in some time. Last year the conference also had six teams selected. Arkansas made it instead of Alabama and Tennessee held the place Mississippi State was given this year.
Ole Miss and Kentucky made it to the Sweet 16. That was the end of the line. No SEC team was included in the final eight, allegedly the eight best teams in America.
In the 2000 tournament once again six conference teams were invited. Florida, LSU and Tennessee were in the Sweet 16. But that was the end of the road for the Tigers and the Vols. Florida went on through to the championship game but were beaten handily by Michigan State.
Shall we go back to 1999? Six teams picked. One team, Kentucky, to the round of eight.
So in the last four years we have seen 24 SEC teams selected for the nation's top basketball event. Only two, Florida in 2000 and Kentucky in 1999 were still playing when the field was reduced to eight.
This year, six starters, but only Kentucky will show up for the next round. And if they get knocked out this week we will have another oh for zip representation when the best are still playing the best.
It isn't that the SEC has fallen back. It's that the rest of the country has caught up. The game is played at a faster pace by more skilled players who are getting better coaching than ever before. You can see it every time CBS turns on their cameras and shows us somebody named Kent State or Southern Illinois shooting three pointers with amazing accuracy, playing defense as if their life depended on it and blocking out for rebounds like pros while shocking and surprising one of the big names of the basketball world.
Everybody has good players, obviously, because there are many more good players than ever. Kids who grew up in my day playing baseball on corner lots now play basketball on playgrounds with concrete playing surfaces and baskets that don't lean one way or the other because they's been installed for long life and great use.
I'm not just talking about black kids either, although goodness knows they have done a great job of adopting the sport as their own. Ask your local high school baseball coach if he still sees as many candidates for his team as in time past. For that matter, ask the high school football coach the same question. Basketball is now the favorite sport of the young athletes. Its rules are simple. It's fun to play. You can kill a pleasant hour or two by yourself just shooting jumpers or have a good time with only one companion who also likes to go one on one. And chances are you are not likely to get hurt. A fast ball in the head will make you gun-shy of similar pitches and change your attitude toward the sport.. You can tear up a knee in a single football scrimmage and make the acquaintance of your nearest orthopedic surgeon. In basketball a floor burn will not affect the rest of your life.
One other major factor must be considered, the expansion of the field to 64 teams. For the first time it was possible to see that many little schools had quality players and, since there is no consistency in performance from one game to another, those no-names were able to slip in and beat some of the big names. It was a major step forward for college basketball.
If those connected with the league in one way or another want to continue maintaining the country's best basketball is being played in the SEC that's their business. They'd better hope Kentucky goes ahead and wins the NCAA this year or it's going to be a tough sell.

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