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Poor start has SEC limping into league play

| Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Eastern Michigan's Da'Shonte Riley (1) fouls Kentucky's Nerlens Noel during the second half Jan. 2. (AP)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The SEC figured to take a step backward this season after being the home of the national champions and having the most NBA draft picks of any league last year.

Still, few expected the SEC to get knocked around like it has during its nonconference schedule.

“I do think there are some teams going through some transitions just like we are,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “That's probably made for a little lesser performance in nonconference play.”

SEC teams have gone 3-6 against the ACC, 2-5 against the Big 12, 2-4 against the Big Ten, 4-13 against the Big East and 4-5 against the Pac-12. SEC teams also are just 3-11 against the Top 25.

SEC coaches say it's too early to panic — or to write the conference off.

Florida's Billy Donovan believes it's unfair to base a league's reputation solely on its November or December performance.

“I never really agreed with that,” Donovan said. “I think teams get better. I think the one thing that's happened in our league is a lot of teams in our league have lost a lot of people. Kentucky's lost a lot. Vanderbilt's lost a lot. Mississippi State's got a new coach. South Carolina's got a new coach. There's been a lot of turnover in personnel of key guys.”

Florida guard Kenny Boynton is the lone first-team or second-team all-SEC performer from last season who has played at all this year. The only other 2011-12 all-conference player to return to school was Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon, who is redshirting this season because of an injured left knee.

The SEC had 12 players drafted in 2012. That figure moves up to 15 if you include Missouri teammates Kim English and Marcus Denmon and Texas A&M's Khris Middleton, who went to college while their schools still belonged to the Big 12.

All those departures have made an impact.

Only two SEC teams are ranked in the Top 25: Missouri and No. 11 Florida. Every school in the conference already has at least two losses. Vanderbilt (6-6), Auburn (6-7), Georgia (5-7) and Mississippi State (5-7) are all at .500 or below.

“If we're going to start judging teams on who we are in November or December ... let's have the tournament Jan. 1,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said.

Donovan cited last year's Tennessee team as evidence of how a team can improve. After losing six of its first nine games last year in Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin's debut season, the Volunteers went 10-6 in conference play but still missed the NCAA tournament because of their subpar nonconference resume.

Maybe, but the league will likely have to overcome its unimpressive nonconference play. The SEC had three schools ranked among the nation's top 15 teams in the preseason: No. 3 Kentucky, No. 10 Florida and No. 15 Missouri.

And it's not just major-college schools. SEC teams have struggled against teams from traditional one-bid leagues.

Auburn lost to Winthrop. Mississippi State fell to Alabama A&M. Texas A&M couldn't handle Southern. Youngstown State defeated Georgia. Mercer beat Alabama.

Defending national champion Kentucky (9-4) already has doubled its loss total from last season as it attempts to replace six draft picks.

“We've lost some games, but those teams that we've lost to haven't lost many games,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And we weren't ready — when you're playing four freshmen — to beat those kind of guys.”

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