It was expected to be a simple turnaround for SEC basketball: One or more teams would be great, plenty more would be good, and last year's nightmare would quickly be written off as a one-year dip.
Has it worked out that way? Yes and no.
The SEC regular season begins this weekend, serving as a good time to evaluate the league's effort to climb back into national respectability. After nonconference play, it is clear the league is better - but there are still plenty of questions.
Kentucky is as good as advertised. New coach John Calipari and his recruits, especially John Wall, have the Wildcats undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the country.
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Mississippi and Tennessee are ranked in this week's AP top 25. Six league teams are projected to make the NCAA tournament, according to ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi.
Only three teams qualified last year, the lowest total in decades for the league. And the league ranks fourth among all conference in the Ratings Percentage Index, compared to seventh last year.
All that has to be considered progress.
But the league has been far from perfect. There were a number of embarrassing losses to smaller schools. And the off-court news has provided some hits:
- Tennessee, which might be the second-best team in the league, has been derailed by the arrest and suspension of its best player, Tyler Smith, and three other key players.
- South Carolina, picked by many before the season to make the NCAAs, lost starters Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes.
- Mississippi State, which could have been a top-20 team with freshman center Renardo Sidney, has yet to see the player cleared by the NCAA.
Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings, one of the league's most tenured coaches, thinks the league's bounce back has been "probably a little better than medium." He admitted that some of the losses to smaller schools stick out.
"Unless you're one of the undefeated teams, everybody it seems like has lost a game that they quote-unquote feel like shouldn't have lost," Stallings said. "I think most of us would tell you that we've probably dropped a game that we could've, should've won."
The exceptions in the SEC are the three ranked teams. Mississippi's only two losses were to top 10 teams. Tennessee's were to No. 4 Purdue and a resurgent Southern California.
And then there's Kentucky.
Many defenders of the league thought the Wildcats' struggles last year, and the lack of one outstanding team, were a big reason the SEC was knocked around in the media.
"It just goes back to they (Kentucky) have a lot to do with the perception of our league, whether it's good or bad," Stallings said. "It's good right now, (because) the perception and I think the reality is that they're very good."
The hope among coaches is that it will help the league in more than just perception. Whoever beats Kentucky (if anybody does) will have a huge bonus on its resume.
Then there's the RPI, a heavy factor with the NCAA selection committee. Last year a spate of weak nonconference schedules appeared to hurt the league in the ratings, as teams didn't rise as much in the RPI during SEC play. Normally they do just by playing each other.
Florida coach Billy Donovan pointed out that the league's RPI ratings are generally higher this year.
"You look on paper, everybody in one aspect or another, has improved, and I think the league is a lot better," Donovan said. "I've always said that the RPI is an index that gets created well before you start your league play. . . Now you're going to see different wins be much better wins inside the league because of what's happened in these nonconference games."
But the Tennessee situation will bear watching. Will Smith or the other players return? If not, will it cost the team an NCAA bid, and how would that affect other teams in the league?
Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl said the arrests "tarnished" his team's 10-2 record. But when he looked at the rest of the league, he saw reason to be happy.
"It's everything that you expected it to be. Kentucky just looks like an awesome team," Pearl said. "Florida's got some tremendous wins already on its resume. ... We're 14th in the country. ... There's a lot of depth in the conference, with Vanderbilt and Georgia's playing great. It's everything everybody expected it to be."