Additions add quality depth to league
BIRMINGHAM — Missouri and Texas A&M’s initial voyage into the Southeastern Conference waters has played to mixed reviews in football.
Missouri has struggled and is winless in SEC play. Texas A&M beat Arkansas and Ole Miss but has yet to come up with a jaw-dropping, how did they do that victory.
Things might be different in basketball. Listening to league basketball coaches Thursday at SEC Basketball Media Day, the league’s newest members likely will have a much bigger impact. And they should. Both have enjoyed national success in recent years. Missouri spent most of the past season in the top five in the Associated Press poll and Texas A&M was solidly entrenched in the top 20 before injuries scuttled a promising season.
How that success translates to the rugged SEC remains to be seen, but coaches like Florida’s Billy Donovan, Alabama’s Anthony Grant, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings and Kentucky’s John Calipari say the league is poised to send a record number of teams to the NCAA Tournament.
The Aggies were 8-1 last season before injuries took their toll. Billy Kennedy’s team ultimately finished 14-18, including 4-14 in the Big 12.
Missouri had greater success, finishing 30-5 before flaming out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, upset by unheralded Norfolk State.
With the league no longer divided into divisions, coaches say the SEC is much stronger than just a year ago when Kentucky won the national championship.
“The quality of the teams speaks for themselves,” said Grant, whose team made an NCAA Tournament appearance last season. “We have great teams in our league this year. We have an opportunity in this league to make history this year in teams we can get to the NCAA Tournament and play in the postseason.”
Donovan’s Florida team beat Texas A&M last season and would have matched up with Missouri in the second round of the NCAA Tournament except for Norfolk State’s upset. He said the league is stronger with their inclusion.
“It’s really good,” Donovan said. “With all the expansion going on all around the country in college football and college basketball and what’s going on with these conferences, you are always trying to make yourself better.
“I think both of them as it relates to the academic part of it and that athletic part will be a great addition to our conference, and hopefully be beneficial to them as well.”
Donovan said the league’s goal should be to get as many as half the teams into the NCAA Tournament each season.
“We should legitimately be talking about trying to get eight teams in the tournament,” he said.
“With our league and the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri, that should be a realistic goal for this year.”
However, Donovan cautioned that eight teams can’t just be penciled into to the tournament field.
“Nobody is getting into the tournament today,” he said. “You have to earn your way in. You are getting into it by what your resume looks like. Everybody has to earn it and I think our league is good enough;, that’s why I think we can get quite a few teams in.”
Stallings likes the additions.
“We’ve added two programs that really bring a lot of quality to an an already great league,” he said. “The addition of those two programs will ultimately see us get more (teams) into the NCAA Tournament that we’ve ever have. It could be this year.”
The SEC has never had more than six teams earn bids into the tournament. This past season four SEC teams earned invitations.
“We’re going to have seven or eight teams with those NCAA hopes,” Calipari said. “Both programs speak for themselves with what they have been able to do. Terrific coaches, terrific schools and they are going to make us just bigger and deeper and make us a better league.”
Gregg Dewalt can be reached at 256-740-5748 or Gregg.email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @greggdewalt.
Coach: Frank Haith (second season)
2011-12 record: 30-5
Starters returning/lost: 1/4
NCAA appearances: 25
Most recent: 2011-12
Texas A&M resume
Coach: Billy Kennedy (second season)
1011-12 record: 14-18
Starters returning/lost: 2/3
NCAA appearances: 12
Most recent: 2010/2011