Kentucky’s outspoken men’s basketball coach John Calipari has long championed the talent and depth in the Southeastern Conference — even when the NCAA tournament selection committee didn’t share his optimism.
And he’s even more bullish about the league’s future now that Missouri and Texas A&M have made the switch from the Big 12 to the SEC.
“Think about what happens now,” Calipari said during Monday’s summer teleconference. “Now we start moving up a notch in where everybody is. I think seven teams in our league — half of our league — is going to be in the NCAA tournament. That’s what I believe.”
Perhaps that is overly optimistic. There’s little doubt, however, that Missouri and Texas A&M add some hardwood flavor to the football-crazy SEC, which has been considered top-heavy on the basketball court during recent years.
Kentucky finished with a 38-2 record last season and won its eighth national championship, while Florida coach Billy Donovan has usually kept the Gators in the national spotlight after back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.
But outside of those two programs, the SEC’s national reputation is tepid. Only four teams (Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt and Alabama) made the NCAA tournament last year.
That’s where Missouri and Texas A&M can help. The Tigers, in particular, has a national pedigree in basketball that few programs in the SEC can boast.
Texas A&M has also been good in recent seasons, making six straight NCAA tournaments before a down year in 2012.
Missouri figures to be competitive immediately in the SEC and should also have one of the league’s best home-court advantages — 15,000-seat Mizzou Arena.
“We have a really good tradition here and we’re excited about what we bring to the table,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “I think that we have a really good fan base, a great arena and hopefully we’ll be very competitive in the league.”
While Missouri leaves behind some traditional rivalries — most notably its heated home-and-home series against Kansas each season — Haith said he’s intrigued by the possibilities in the SEC.
“We leave one power conference for another and I’m excited about the opportunity,” Haith said. “I think being in the Southeastern Conference — obviously Mizzou is a national brand and we can recruit nationally — but I think there’s no question it does open some doors in the Southeast from a recruiting standpoint.”
The addition of Missouri and Texas A&M isn’t the only issue for the SEC, which will officially admit the two universities on July 1. Other topics on the summer teleconference:
— The NCAA’s new rule changes for basketball were widely praised by the league’s coaches. The governing body de-regulated contact with recruits during the summer months, allowing for unlimited calls and text messages.
“Any time you open up the lines of communication, that’s a healthy thing,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
The NCAA also now allows coaches to spend eight hours per week on the court with players enrolled in summer school. For new coaches in the league like South Carolina’s Frank Martin, Mississippi State’s Rick Ray and LSU’s Johnny Jones, it’s allowed a little extra time to get familiar with personnel.
— Kentucky begins its quest for a second-straight national championship with an almost completely overhauled roster. Stars from last year’s team — including Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — have left for the NBA, but Calipari has reloaded with some of the nation’s most highly regarded freshmen, including Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley.
“You won’t believe this, but we’re going to be really young,” Calipari deadpanned. “... What I’ll tell you is, I like my team. I think we’ve got good players, good kids.”
— Some SEC coaches believe the escalating number of Division I basketball transfers needs to be addressed. NCAA president Mark Emmert recently said that 40 percent of all Division I players transfer before their junior season, the highest percentage of any sport.
Both South Carolina’s Martin and Auburn coach Tony Barbee said the problem begins before college, when elite players often transfer between high schools and AAU programs. Barbee said a culture has been formed that allows players to “run from their problems” when there is adversity.