SEC hoops upgrade remains work in progress
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) The Southeastern Conference's efforts to upgrade men's basketball remain a work in progress.
The SEC took steps to make teams upgrade nonconference schedules starting this season. The goal is to boost power ratings and land more than last year's three teams in the NCAA tournament.
Anthony Grant and Alabama played No. 4 Wichita State and No. 8 Duke and visited UCLA's Pauley Pavilion but lost all three games. Most other SEC teams have also heeded the call from Commissioner Mike Slive.
Still, just past the halfway point of the league schedule, not a whole lot has changed for the SEC.
Two teams No. 3 Florida and No. 14 Kentucky seem like shoo-ins for the NCAA field, and no one else can feel the least bit comfortable.
Alabama, which was 9-14 going into Tuesday night's game with Mississippi, has been the strongest example that a beefed-up slate isn't a cure-all for a league that is a powerhouse in football but gets less respect in hoops.
"This is probably the toughest nonconference schedule we've put together, and we put it together for a reason," said Grant, whose team lost several players during the offseason. "To try to position ourselves, if we were fortunate enough to win some of those games, to have a chance at the postseason, and also to help strengthen our league in terms of RPI.
"Unfortunately for us it didn't work out that way with our nonconference."
Alabama had the ninth-toughest nonconference schedule nationally, up 69 spots from last season, according to CBSSports.com's rankings. Kentucky (59th to 14th), Mississippi (271st to 103rd) and LSU (234th to 137th) are also among the teams who made big leaps in strength of nonconference schedule.
The NCAA's latest official power ratings released Monday had Florida at No. 5 and Kentucky at No. 12. The next SEC teams are Tennessee (47th) and Missouri (50th).
League athletic directors agreed last May to submit their men's basketball nonconference schedules for approval and hired former NCAA tournament guru Greg Shaheen as a scheduling consultant.
That came after only Florida, Mississippi and Missouri advanced to the NCAA tournament last March, only the second time in 23 years just three teams got in. The Gators were the only ones to survive the opening weekend.
Slive, a former chair of the NCAA selection committee, wanted a change.
"He was very clear in saying that the three NCAA bids that the league received last year was just 'simply unacceptable', was his term," said associate commissioner Mark Whitworth, who was placed in charge of men's basketball.
Whitworth said the new policy was implemented when it was too late for some teams to get out of contracts for nonconference games. He expects more of an impact next season. He said scheduling is an important piece of the endeavor, but creating a league where more top prospects want to play is the long-term ambition.
Scheduling, said CBSSports's Jerry Palm, isn't the main problem.
"The problem is they've got to upgrade their talent," said Palm, who runs a bracket. "The schedule doesn't matter if you don't have the talent to play it."
Meanwhile, attendance has dwindled for the second straight year. Two years ago, 11,513 fans on average attended SEC game. That dropped to 10,571 last season and 9,745 so far in 2013-14.
Competitively, the SEC is perfectly fine at the top, where Florida was 21-2, unbeaten in league games and had won 15 straight going into Tuesday night's game at Tennessee. Kentucky (18-5, 8-2) has returned to form after having to settle for an NIT berth last season.
Palm thinks the SEC has made some strides. He's got Florida and Kentucky in the tournament and has also penciled in Tennessee and Missouri on his bracket with LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas still in the mix.
"Florida and Kentucky are the only safe teams," Palm said. "Everybody else, they could all miss."
Palm has the SEC rated seventh-best among the conferences, led by the Big 12 and Big Ten.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi projects five SEC teams as making the field, including LSU. Lunardi figures that number is more likely to go down than up.
He said he's got LSU and Missouri as the last two teams in and Ole Miss is one of the first four out.
"I certainly noticed some of the efforts at better scheduling and I would say that's still the way to go as a rule," Lunardi said. "Good scheduling is almost never going to take you out. Bad scheduling will often. So you're gambling in the right direction most of the time when you schedule up."
Gators coach Billy Donovan said the play of many SEC teams changes significantly from November to February, even if perception doesn't.
"It's kind of like you play nonconference, then you get into your league," Donovan said. "But once you get into the league in January, the league's got an identity. And it's really, really hard to change that identity. It really, really is."
AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Steve Megargee contributed to this report
Follow John Zenor on Twitter @jzenor