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SEC coaches confident of better season

As last season went on and talk about the SEC's struggles grew louder, the league's coaches seemed to follow the classic emotional stages.

There was denial. The league was better than others thought and would get its regular number of postseason bids, they said.

Then there was anger, after the league was largely snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee.

Then came acceptance, to a point, and action to fix it.

Now the optimism is back. At Thursday's media day in Birmingham, sentiment was widespread that the league would return to getting at least six NCAA bids, with some predicting as many as eight.

That hope was pinned on three factors:

- Last year was a freak combination of so many teams getting worse at the same time.

- Kentucky, with an influx of talent and new coach John Calipari, will help the league's national perception.

- The nonconference schedules for nearly every team have improved, which should help the team's computer numbers and NCAA tournament resumes.

"Last year will be a soon-forgotten memory in not very long, I think, because top to bottom our league is going to be the way it seems it is every year," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "It wasn't that way last year."

Only three SEC teams got NCAA bids in March, the lowest amount since 1979. The highest seed was LSU as a No. 8.

This season starts with Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi State favored to get bids. Three more teams from the East - Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida - have a good shot, as does Mississippi in the West.

"I think we'll get seven or eight teams in. And the reason is we're all young and everybody's back," Calipari said. "Everybody returns most of their starters. Everybody's improved their schedules. When we start playing each other, it'll build everyone up."

SEC teams have 41 scheduled games against BCS conference teams, a number that should increase as preseason tournaments get underway. Last year the SEC played 37 regular-season games against BCS conference teams, including those tournaments.

This year the league also has a number of matchups with good mid-majors. USC, Vanderbilt and LSU each play Western Kentucky; LSU and Florida play Xavier; Auburn and Arkansas play Missouri State.

In May, SEC commissioner Mike Slive spoke to the coaches about improving their nonconference schedules, bringing in two NCAA representatives and speaking from his own experience as chairman of the NCAA selection committee.

On Thursday, Slive pronounced himself "generally pleased" with what teams have done.

"One of the things that we've emphasized is that this has become a national basketball league and our nonconference basketballs should reflect that it's national," Slive said.

But some of the league coaches disagree.

"We were all admonished for getting only three teams in the tournament. How dare we," Stallings said sarcastically. "And we weren't as good last year. We weren't. We're not trying to trick anybody. We weren't as good."

But scheduling up is not necessarily the answer, Stallings added.

"I'll probably get in trouble from this from Mike," he said. "They blamed it on our scheduling, and if you're bad against the bad schedule, aren't you going to be bad against the good schedule?"

USC coach Darrin Horn echoed that, arguing the schedules were irrelevant. The bigger problem, according to Horn, was the league had too many bad losses.

"We (beat) Baylor but we lost to Clemson, just using us as an example," Horn said. "I think that's just as important."

The most important factor, each coach agreed, was the teams will be better. High-profile recruits have entered the league and many established players passed on going pro.

And next spring, no one thinksthere will be a need for Slive to admonish the coaches again.

"I understand where (the SEC is) coming from because the financial implication is significant," Stallings said. "They've gotten used to our dollars. And our dollars are starting to matter now. It's not just the football bucks anymore. Our money's starting to matter a little bit, and they like it, and I don't blame them.

"We'll give it back to them this year, though."

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